It seems like something out of Star Trek. A “replicator” – something that can create any complex object from generic raw materials, such as powdered metal. Well, these replicators actually already exist, and they are called 3D printers. The process by which objects are created by 3D printers is called “additive manufacturing.”
If you’ve never seen additive manufacturing in action, then prepare to be impressed:
The machine and process are fascinating, but are they the future of manufacturing? Obviously, the first problem is scale. 3D printers are far too expensive and slow to produce at the rate necessary for a full-scale, commercial manufacturing operation. However, all of that could change – and quickly. Think about the rapid advancements in computing over the last 10 years. Could this apply to a physical device? Perhaps, but it depends on whether or not the demand for it exists.
What becomes obsolete?
One difficulty manufacturers face is when market forces affect the demand for a product. If a plant has been designed to produce a very specific widget, for example, then what happens when there is no longer a market for that widget? If the plant can’t quickly adapt to producing a new widget, then it becomes obsolete – and along with it the jobs of its workers.
With additive manufacturing, that problem may not exist. All a 3D printer would require is a new blueprint design file and a completely different widget is produced. This could give any manufacturer a strong competitive advantage over a less-nimble rival. However, would this ability to print anything from a machine make workers obsolete?
A technological change so profound will reset the economics of manufacturing. Some believe it will decentralise the business completely, reversing the urbanisation that accompanies industrialisation. There will be no need for factories, goes the logic, when every village has a fabricator that can produce items when needed. Up to a point, perhaps. But the economic and social benefits of cities (see article) go far beyond their ability to attract workers to man assembly lines.
Others maintain that, by reducing the need for factory workers, 3D printing will undermine the advantage of low-cost, low-wage countries and thus repatriate manufacturing capacity to the rich world. It might; but Asian manufacturers are just as well placed as anyone else to adopt the technology. And even if 3D printing does bring manufacturing back to developed countries, it may not create many jobs, since it is less labour-intensive than standard manufacturing.
What does the future hold?
For now, 3D printers are just in the domain of modelers and designers. That may be a good thing. IP protection will certainly be an issue, and the possible loss of labor and jobs could have far-reaching effects. Therefore, as with many other Star Trek devices, we’ll have to wait and see if they – and their consequences — become reality.