Friday, April 10, 2015

3D Printing and its Jobs – Oversold, On Schedule, or Just Delayed?

Consider the following, and note they are in chronological order:

Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale.  It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did...  Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing.  But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches. – "Print me a Stradivarius – How a new manufacturing technology will change the world," Economist Technology, February 10, 2011.

The prediction that 3-D printers will become a part of our daily lives is happening much sooner than anyone anticipated. – Nick Bilton, “Disruptions:  On the Fast Track to Routine 3-D Printing,” The New York Times, February 17, 2013

Americans expect access to almost-free drinking water, clean air, a fine highway system, and at least some measure of personal safety – it may well come to pass that food and shelter, both possibly provided by 3D printers, and medical care, provided by software-driven robots, will be added to that list.  – I wrote this around September 2013

Are we expecting too much from these 3-D printers? – Title of article by Christopher Gregory, The New York Times, August 11, 2014

Items printed from a 3-D printer are unlikely to ever match the quality and strength and surface finish of mass manufactured goods… Printing is amazing… but do we print out our newspapers every morning on our inkjet printers? – Nick Allen, “3-D Printers are No Rival for Mass Production,” The New York Times, August 11, 2014

Gartner recently said that worldwide sales of 3-D printers will be about 217,000 units in 2015.  By contrast, in the United States alone, shipments of regular printers are typically about 24 million units a year. – Quentin Hardy, “HP Unveils Plan to Make 3-D Printing an Everyday Thing,” The New York Times, October 29, 2014

What’s happening here?

As the above sequence implies, once 3D printing began getting attention outside the technical community, it seemed that it would be so significant that it was almost scary.  Its machines could be producing just about everything, at home, in the office, and in what once were people-dense factories.  Not only price but speed would improve astronomically, and everything from hamburgers to skyscrapers, all with superb quality as well as unbeatable cost, would come out of the things.  And all of this would arrive stunningly quickly even by recent technology standards.  Although one estimate from last fall had 275 companies working on 3D printing as of four years ago, the 217,000 production could well have turned out to be close to that 24 million.

Now it is 2015, and, some real medical-related successes, a modest set of other niches, and a lot of gee-whiz stunts such as building a house notwithstanding, we’re still waiting.  Why, when 3D printers can now cost as little as $200?  I see four related reasons:

First, the printers now lack a killer app that would put them in ordinary people’s homes.  True, the novelty of making small things you can show off to people, and sometimes even use, is fun, but it isn’t enough to justify even the new lower prices, not to mention the cost of materials and supplies.  The closest they have is their physical prototype capability, which works of course superbly with CAD, but that’s not for the rank and file.

Second, large-scale use, as Allen wrote above, is not cost-effective.  Even if its expenditures were further slashed, the time 3D printing takes is still a huge problem for making large quantities of almost anything.  That and the first point mean that its major uses, for a while anyway, will be for small numbers of things, and otherwise around the fringes of routine manufacturing.

Third, while the technology is extremely promising, its real value may turn out to be, fast recent progress notwithstanding, far in the future.  Larry Niven’s science fiction stories set in 2800 or so referred to an organic soup of some sort, from which organs and other body structures were made.  That has already started, with replacement limbs, primitive though they may be by future standards, made that way.  One responder to the Gregory article above mentioned how much 3D printing will facilitate both the cost and the practice of space travel.  Those are two massive reasons to keep developing knowledge, and they provide reasons for companies to continue with it despite the return being maybe decades off, but neither offers widespread or extensive value now.

Fourth, and probably the most important to understand why expectations have lagged, is that when we were becoming aware of 3D printing we didn’t think much about exactly how it would be transformative.  I, for one, plead guilty to becoming intoxicated with the concept without projecting either what capability would arrive when, or what, after the novelty wore off, would get people to keep buying it. 

So how and when will 3D printing affect American employment?  It should contribute positions, mostly in design, maintenance, and research and development for the next 20 years or so, even with some of these and virtually all manufacturing being done in other countries.  After 2035 or so it will eliminate many, many more.   With that said, though, there is no new field, and certainly not anything else electronic, that projects to add more United States jobs over the next two decades.    

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