It used to be that a cobbler would make a pair of shoes as a single act of design and craftsmanship. Then, starting around the 1860’s, you would buy your shoes from a company that designed several models and made each in mass quantities. When you bought the shoe you also got the design that was baked into it. Now, imagine that we have local or personal 3-D printing. You might browse a company’s Web site for a shoe design you really like, or even better, one that was modified according to a 3-D scan of your foot and the sports you play. You buy the design, download the 3-D file, and send that to a 3-D printer down the street to be manufactured. At the end of the process, you end up with a unique pair of shoes that you had a hand in designing.
We can separate the design of a product from its manufacture for the first time in history, because all of the information necessary to print that object is built into the design. But the impact of 3-D printing will not be limited to consumer products. We’ll see its influence in all aspects of the marketplace — from nanotechnology to the building of major infrastructure.
3. What effect will 3-D printing have on the global labor market? Is it the beginning of the end for manual labor?
There are many technologies changing the nature of manufacturing and the role of manual labor. Three dimensional printing is just one of them. Computer-controlled machines (CNC), water and laser cutters and robotic assembly are radically changing the way products are built. The ability to produce a small number high quality items and sell them at reasonable prices is causing an enormous economic disruption. In it, you can see the future of American manufacturing.
In a computerized manufacturing process like 3-D printing, complexity and quality are free, and there is little economy of scale. The 3-D printer, just like a traditional printer, is not constrained by an object’s complexity. A traditional paper printer can print a circle or a copy of the Mona Lisa with equal ease. The same rule applies to a 3-D printer. Also, a 3-D printer doesn’t really care how many units you need. The first one costs and takes as long to print as the 100th. Thanks to these trends, 3-D printing is empowering innovation for many businesses that rely on agility and scalability. This technology has allowed the small medical products design company Bespoke Innovations to affordably fabricate customized medical devices such as prosthetic limbs. Thanks to 3-D printing, Nervous System, another small business, can focus its resources on designing limited edition jewelry, since it can produce only the products they need.