Will 3D Printing Bring Jobs back?
This question seems come up from time to time and I noticed that even inside the 3D Printing industry, there seem to be people who are unsure or quite skeptical about a yes answer.
If East and West both have the same 3D printing technology, tell me how 3D printers are going to “bring back jobs”? Aside from those making the 3D printers themselves, the playing field appears about the same as it was prior to 3D printers.
The real question should be restated as, Will 3D printing create more jobs than it destroys in (developed) western countries?
The answer is of course yes but not for often cited technophile ratiocination of, “but we need HUMANZ 2 build those robots”
Chasing more productive labor
Manufacturing has been chasing cheaper labor for the last several hundred years. This is partly because it was easy to transfer machinery and know how but transferring people away from their homeland is difficult. And the same people that are consuming goods, are doing so because they have money to spend, which means they are being paid a higher wage for their labor. So it has been a game of cat and mouse where wealth flows to developing countries until another source of labor becomes more economically viable and the cycle starts again.
3D printing as a singular manufacturing process favors higher skilled productivity over longer man hours because of the composite nature of software, hardware, and design sense. Getting things right on the first large build with a 3D printer is probably enough by itself to pay for the higher cost of human labor. Developed countries have higher ‘human capital’ to a point you might not believe until you have compared the average American factory worker with the average Chinese factory worker. The most highly sought out workers inside 3D printing will be those that have enough well rounded skills to anticipate and work around potential problems.
Regulation comes in many forms: environmental, labor, fincial, etc. but it is always a competitive disadvantage to the regulated economies vs.
the unregulated. In the case of China and America, American companies outsource their pollution to Chinese factories which can pollute without paying for it. In all of these cases, labor, fincial, and environmental, developed countries are almost always more heavily regulated than their developing counterparts where the manufacturing industry flees towards.
The reason this is one of the largest factors for bringing jobs back is because 3D printing is not yet heavily regulated and by creating smaller scale and more distributed manufacturing operations, it may prove to be more difficult to regulate than slower traditional manufacturing. Depending on how long this repose from regulation lasts, this could be the single biggest reason 3D printing would bring jobs back to developed countries.
3D Printing has a bias towards localizing manufacturing due to compressing supply chain. If the supply chain is compressed to the point where full assemblies are made in a single step from a raw/commodity material, the largest non production cost factor becomes transportation and storage. For example, a large part of the reason people find manufacturing in China cheaper is because the factories they are contracting have other local factories that are building part of the product, so industry specific hubs develop naturally. If you want to build electronic devices, you go to Shenzhen. Overtime, this evolves into a tiered system like we see in Japan with the upper tiers controlling the larger assemblies and the tier 0’s often doing little actual manufacturing. 3D Printing is detaching the hub from the spoke, the model looks more like distributed self contained cells than central industry specific hubs. Production will move closer to clients. The largest consumers are ‘developed’ nations.
There are several other smaller factors that might also bring jobs back:
Mass customization - benefits local people who maybe better in touch with their local clients.
Higher ticket price products - A single 3D printing part that was previously 12 different cheaply made parts may favor local production where trust and risk management become larger factors for business.
Imagine this, you are sitting in your dorm at Starfleet academy and walk up to your replicat… 3d printer, order your earl grey hot, grab it and begin to dwell on the future of jobs in the federation. Quiescent only for a second as you realize that it makes no sense to order your earl grey from a 3d printer on Romulas. As complex parts are produced singularly and without effort, localization of production necessarily increases.