Over the years one of the popular themes used to promote 3D printing was the notion that it could “bring back jobs”.
Jobs Lost To Outsourcing
This, of course, refers to two events driving jobs away:
First, the large-scale outsourcing of manufacturing from North America and the West to Asia over the past couple of decades. Manufacturers moved operations to Asia because of the lower cost of labor, and sometimes other costs, too.
That’s the visible cause of manufacturing job loss.
Jobs Lost To Automation
The invisible factor is automation.
With dramatically increased capabilities in not only robotics, but the software systems that drive them, many assembly operations underwent considerable automation, to the detriment of actual human jobs.
I’m not sure which factor caused more jobs to be lost, but regardless, here we are.
3D Printing Bringing Jobs Back?
Then there’s this proposition that 3D printing can “bring jobs back”.
At the surface, I think this sounds preposterous. Think about it: using a machine that automates manufacturing to bring back jobs that were already automated away? How does that work?
Could the technology overcome the low-cost outsourcing phenomenon? I don’t think so, at least in the long term, because if workers in the West can used automated 3D printing equipment, then so can workers in Asia. There is no advantage when everyone can use the same equipment, and the low-cost labor pool is still there to run the machines.
And good luck keeping the technology away from Asia, as there are already countless manufacturers of very good equipment, software and materials there, operating in some cases for decades.
Bring Back Jobs
So what is it in 3D printing that might be able to generate jobs?
I have a thought.
Let’s think about 3D printing as a technology. Why does it have an advantage over other making technologies? It’s because the nature of the making process allows for the creation of objects that could not be made in other ways.
In other words, the technology can produce impossible parts. Or at least geometries that our long training in non-3D printing design has taught us could not be built.
I think the key here is to leverage 3D printing to develop new, “impossible” parts that either revolutionize industries or create entire new industries. That is something that would create jobs — although if you are revolutionizing an industry, you may inadvertently cause job loss in a different area.
Developing The Next Big Thing
The problem then is not the technology, nor the labor market. It is one of imagination.
Workers and especially leaders in the West need to consider the possibilities opened up by new technologies, including 3D printing, to create new products and, consequently, new industries.
Managers should be open to new concepts. Financial leaders should accept investment in new approaches. Everyone needs to step a bit out of their comfort zone to try something new.
There will no doubt be failures, but those are the price of success.
Let’s give it a try.