What would our economy look like if every home had an additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping system? For example, how would it affect manufacturing? Would it translate into more or fewer jobs? How about transportation? Would we need fewer trucks and fewer distribution centers? What if, instead of everyone having an individual system, rapid prototyping systems were grouped into franchise opportunities, sort of like a “Kinko’s,” and consumers went there to obtain the item they wanted or needed there?
A lot of recent commentary on additive manufacturing technologies has focused on its potential to take us out of our economic downturn. Could these systems really add to the manufacturing job pool? It might depend on how we define “manufacturing job pool,” because a paradigm shift is under way.
In the short term, if you’re a CAD designer, you will likely have more opportunities for employment, as someone needs to create the programs that will enable push-button use. But for those who expect more traditional manufacturing jobs, your prospects for employment may have dimmed rather than risen. Rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing may eliminate jobs, as it lends itself very well to a “do-it-yourself” culture.
While the building of these machines for individual home use would certainly require manufacturing, if home owners had such technology, why would we need manufacturing facilities to build things like door knobs, cups and saucers, garden tools, clothes, lamps, basic furniture, even cars? We would be able to do it ourselves.
And our transportation/distribution segment of the economy might be affected too. In a recent conversation with a spokesman at Stratasys, he mentioned that he had been called by his state’s Department of Transportation about the possible impact rapid prototyping technologies might have on freight shipments—would it reduce the amount transported by trucks or planes? (I applaud the DOT for thinking about this now.) On the one hand, it is highly likely that rapid technologies will reduce the amount of goods shipped to retail stores. But it is also likely that instead of retail products, our transportation industry would ship the powdered materials used by these systems to retailers, who would stock them, and the home user would come in and buy the materials they needed for their systems. For transportation, a 3D printer in every home might have minimal impact.
A recent report by a stock analyst who commented on Stratasys’ recent stock performance, noted that this industry is one all stock traders should watch; “Additive manufacturing has the potential to be truly transformative,” he said in a recent blog.
I think it already is transforming manufacturing, but many may not have noticed yet.
The analyst continued, “Major economic revolutions, … are driven by products or services that totally upend the pervasive business models. The use of these systems has now evolved beyond rapid prototyping into actual production. The economics of this evolution are extremely attractive. … 3D printing eliminates almost all of the risk in making changes to products. Retooling costs have dropped close to zero and material waste is virtually eliminated.” He goes on to mention that manufacturers can produce thousands of custom products at a time at lower costs than traditional batch run processes.
But now we need to redefine “manufacturer.” Is a manufacturer someone with a large building, lots of machining equipment, and lots of capacity? Or is it the engineering firm developing prototypes, who now has the capacity to make the product without going to the more traditional manufacturer. Or will it soon be the individual homeowner who can print a replacement or original part and no longer have to go to Home Depot, Lowes, WallMart, Target, or other store?