The Promise of 3D Printing

3D printing will cause “the whole business dynamic that makes it a good idea for a lot of U.S. companies to manufacture overseas will go poof…. It is expected to have a mighty impact on jobs, geopolitics and the climate.”

“3D printing is not expected to have much effect on mass production and thus on how most U.S. consumer goods are produced.”

The first quote comes from a Newsweek article by Kevin Maney citing a report by the World Economic Forum and the founder of 3D Hubs, an international network of some 28,000 industrial-grade 3D printers in 156 countries.

The second quote is from a new book by Robert J. Gordon titled The Rise and Fall of American Growth.

Up for debate is whether 3D printing will eventually change the worldwide distribution of manufacturing jobs. How many jobs that have found their way to low labor cost countries could be relocated to their previous countries, or could be broadly redistributed to place manufacturing close to consumer markets?

The current status of 3D printing finds applications in prototyping of new products, as well as replacement parts for existing products or whole finished products. Prototyping is used by architects and designers. That makes up the bulk of 3D Hubs business. In the medical field, 3D printers have produced dental crowns and bridges, hearing aid shells, hip replacement joints, jawbones, and prosthetics. 3D printers are also producing smartphones and parts for cars and airplanes.

The consumer market is the target that 3D Hubs has in its sights. Co-founder Bram de Zwart looks forward to working with a company like Nike and moving manufacturing to where the demand is. The Newsweek article projects changes that could occur if any Nike shoe could be economically printed on demand. “Stores would become showrooms with no inventory. No shoe would be made until it’s ordered, and once that’s done, the design would be sent to a printer near the customer’s home …. Since 3-D designs could be altered as easily as we now change typefaces on a PowerPoint slide, customers could customize shoes before they’re made.” The article goes on the cite startups including SyncFab, Shapeways, and CloudFab that are entering the same business.

Extending the reach of the possible in 3D manufacturing, an Israeli-American company, Stratasys, has unveiled a new model that uses a process similar to inkjet printing. It uses multiple cartridges that can produce 360,000 colors for shadows, gradients and even neons, and up to six different materials to produce any combination of rigid, flexible, transparent or opaque end product.

While the debate over distribution of manufacturing jobs unfolds, China is not about to have its manufacturing sector left behind. As reported on, “Since 2011 the Chinese 3D printing market has doubled every year since and in 2016 it is expected to reach $1.5 billion. Their growth rate has been outpacing the rest of the world and it is likely to exceed the United States as the world’s largest 3D printing market by 2018 if that growth continues.”

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