The advent of new technology such as 3D printing is undoubtedly good news for some enterprises for the following advantages.
3D printing has made a great progress in using less material and creating less waste. The process is the opposite of sculpture: rather than carving away unwanted material, it adds material where there was none. So 3D printing is termed “additive manufacturing”, distinguished from traditional “subtractive manufacturing”, which mostly rely on the removal of material by drilling, cutting and so on. Because it only uses what it needs to build the part, it requires as little as 10 percent of the raw material expended in conventional factory production, thus saving a considerable amount of material cost. Moreover, time can be saved by eliminating the process of designing and manufacturing tooling for molding or casting, which is often discarded with the next design iteration.
In addition, it is calculated that less energy is used in the digital manufacturing process. If 3D printing is applied across the global economy, the energy saved can add up to a substantial increase in energy efficiency. Since 84 percent of productivity gains in the manufacturing and service industries are attributed to increase in thermodynamic efficiencies, we can reasonably imagine the enormous surge in productivity that will accompany the Third Industrial Revolution.
With factory workers not playing such an essential role in manufacturing, the low-cost and low-wage countries, for example, China and India, are not so attractive any longer. The manufacturing may consequently go back to developed countries where are closer to the market. Products can be made locally while only the digital designs need to be distributed around the world. Localized production not only shortens the lead time but also reduces logistic costs by simplifying the supply chain. 3D printing makes it possible for designers to modify a product’s design easily and instantly in order to react on changes in the market or environment. Now that products can be printed on demand, there is no need for inventory to be held in stock. Such organism resembles the renowned just-in-time system of which the goal is to reduce the production stock to the minimum. This advantage of 3D printing encourages the flourish of large quantities of small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) along with another advantage of undermining economics of scale. 3D printing makes it as cheap to create a single item as it is to produce thousands. SMEs can run off one or two samples with a 3D printer to keep an eye on the attitude of consumers instead of investing a large sum of money to set up a factory or asking a mass-producer at home or in another country to start manufacturing right away. They can make a few more to see if sold well and take in design changes that consumers ask for. If things go really well, it is time to scale up with customary mass production or a massive 3D print run. Therefore, it is not necessary to produce large batches to lower the marginal cost and offset the investment for establishing a complete supply chain. SMEs are confronted with less risk in product failures as well as lower entry cost to enter into a new market.
Until now, 3D printing has found use in the fields of jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, geographic information systems, civil engineering, and many others. It seems to have a promising future, but at least in the next few decades, it will not replace traditional manufacturing techniques. Today 3D printers are still expensive compared to their mass-produced counterparts and not every product can be 3D printed yet. Someone may declare that these gaps will close in the coming years. The advance of technology will lead to lower prices for machines and make production of all merchandises come true. Another bigger gap is that not every product is suitable to be 3D printed. For instance, bullet and knee implant. The process of the former is simple and highly refined while that of the latter is complex and multi-material. 3D printed bullets will be even more expensive than those from conventional process. Hence, additive manufacturing will lose out to conventional manufacturing process for simpler items but capitalize on its key advantages for more complex and customized systems. I expect that the transition will be more gradual than revolutionary, that is, there is perhaps a long period for the two processes existing at the same time.
The manufacturing industry is bound to change. A lot of companies need to adapt, and will experience huge changes in how they operate and are organized. Global companies will increasingly metamorphose from primary producers and distributors to aggregators. In the new economic era, their role will be to coordinate and manage the multiple networks that move commerce and trade across the value chain. So profound a technological change may even decentralize the business and reverse the urbanization that accompanies industrialization.
When it comes to the issue of labor force, many people fear that new machines will cause unemployment. This is not rare at least since the start of the First Industrial Revolution. Although technology has advanced rapidly over the past couple of centuries, unemployment has not risen with it. On the contrary, productivity, output and jobs have all risen together. So there is no need to worry about the problem of joblessness.
New technology, which implies that a unit of labor produces more output, makes a unit of labor more valuable. Given time, this translates into higher wages and standards of living for workers. In the short term, skilled workers will fare better than unskilled ones, but this disparity will shrink over time for two reasons. First, as technologies mature, the level of skill needed to work them will decline. Firms will substitute away from expensive skilled labor toward more economical unskilled labor. As this happens, the skill premium will decline. Second, young workers will tend to migrate away from low-paying unskilled jobs toward high-paying skilled ones. This tendency will increase the supply of skilled labor and reduce the amount of unskilled labor, easing pressure on the skill premium. Thus I am confident that the rising tide of tehnological advance will lift everybody’s boat in the long run.
In the future, if the 3D printer is affordable to the public, I can imagine that many people will purchase one to print products according to his or her own design. At that time, companies may turn to provide some novel personal services, advice and consultancy about personal fabrication.