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Our three-dimensional future: how 3D printing will shape the global economy

Posting in Aerospace

At what point will 3D printing move beyond novelty to industry? Will these machines change the way we manufacture goods, and subsequently change the global economy, too?

Lately, it seems like nearly everything has been reproduced by a 3D printer. Between the group that 3D printed a gun, the people who printed a drone, and the army of items sold at this small marketplace for 3D printed goods, there are plenty of novelty uses for these suddenly trendy machines. We're a long way from 3D printing a house, but it's clear that the hobby is inching into the mainstream.

Yet it's difficult not to wonder: at what point will 3D printing move beyond novelty to industry? Will these machines change the way we manufacture goods, and subsequently change the global economy, too? (Is it already happening before our very eyes?)

The answer: yes and no. The term "3D printing" comprises two very different worlds: hobbyist 3D printing, where people with relatively inexpensive machines print plastic objects in the comfort of their homes; and industrial 3D printing, which is usually referred to by another name: additive manufacturing. They are vastly different and will likely have divergent impacts on the economy. Both, however, are poised to alter the way businesses think about production.

Homeward bound

Right now, home 3D printing is relatively exclusive to hobbyists and makers. A machine for the purpose costs about $4,000, and typically only prints objects from plastic. For now, those objects tend to verge on the trivial: bracelets, puzzle games, figurines. But some envision a future where people will be able to 3D print replacement parts, or even entire products, at home.

The arc of the 3D printing trend is similar to other technologies, says Cherie Ann Sherman, an economist at Ramapo College in New Jersey. In its infancy, the technology is today confined to crafts, hobbyists and hackers. But the path is well-worn. "If you think back to computers, that's how personal computers started," Sherman said. "They were being sold in hobby stores."

In the modern age of mass manufacturing, consumers aren't fixers. Most people don't take their toaster apart to figure out what's wrong with it, and even fewer will want to then 3D print a replacement part. But 3D printing can still have a huge impact on the home product economy, says Phil Anderson, an inventor and Ramapo College professor. Rather than each person having their own printer at home, local businesses and hardware stores could adopt the technology. Take your faulty toaster to Home Depot or Sears, and a store employee could isolate the problem and print your solution on the spot.

The development path of 3D printing could resemble that of photo printing, Anderson says. When it became affordable for people to have printers in their homes, people began printing their own photos. Today, most people don't print their own photos, despite increasingly better home technology; instead, they avoid printing at all, and reserve the special occasions that they do for shops with high quality print services. The same could hold for 3D printing: if printers become affordable enough, many people might initially buy them, but they will eventually turn to specialized shops to get the job done as the technology becomes ubiquitous.

Still, the economic impact of these kinds of 3D printed products -- one-off components or replacement parts -- could be radical, Anderson says. They could eliminate the need for huge warehouses of parts and cut the need for shipping different components from place to place as they're ordered, in favor of instantly creating a perfect replica on-site. Three-dimensional printing could reduce or eliminate some of the steps between product creators and consumers. The existence of the middle man that buys, sells and ships is threatened.

"I can cost-effectively make a cell phone cover that is unique to every customer," explains Ryan Wicker, a researcher at the University of Texas at El Paso. "I could build 100 different ones just as cost-effectively as building them all the same." That flexibility and direct delivery is why 3D printing might change the markets for home appliances, jewelry and other small goods.

Sherman likens it to the way the Internet has cut the middle man from artists who can now promote their art or music online without a big record label attached to them. Now, people discover musicians on YouTube as easily as the radio. "You can be the Carly Rae Jepson of 3D printing," she laughs.

The factory floor

Far from your living room or office is the world of the factory -- the large, the numerous, at a scale that eclipses that of a human. This world of 3D printing, or, as industry designers call it, "additive manufacturing," is far more mature. Industry has been printing parts for years now, from plastic vents to airplane parts to cars.

Take U.S. aerospace leader Boeing, for example. The company has two entire divisions dedicated to additive manufacturing: one for plastics, and another for metals. The two present quite different challenges. Plastic 3D printing is a more developed process, used for simple components such as vents and knobs. Metals, on the other hard, are far more complex, often used for structural components that require more safety oversight. Yet parts comprised of either material are made with the same process. More applications are expected in the near future.

As adoption increases, the potential impact of additive manufacturing on the labor force is difficult to understate. Traditional manufacturing requires a lot of unskilled labor, which is far less expensive in developing nations such as China and India. As globalization took hold over the last several decades, international outsourcing by companies pulled jobs away from former manufacturing hubs like the United States. In an additive manufacturing-based industry, that's not necessary. Plus, the jobs that support it tend to be more, not less, skilled. "You're electromagnetically steering an electron beam, which is a very powerful energy source," says Dave Dietrich, the lead engineer from the metals group at Boeing. "These people are heavily trained technicians."

Three-dimensional printing also stands to make industrial design more efficient; with new capabilities comes new processes. Take a complicated engine piece, for example: what once required several pieces manufactured separately then fit together can now be designed and printed as one piece. For the airline industry, for example, that means lighter parts that translate to reduced fuel costs. "Even though we live in a 3D world, most of our products are designed in 2D," Wicker says. "Just imagine allowing the full creativity of my designer to take advantage of all three dimensions."

For big industry, a better bottom line makes additive manufacturing worth it, allowing for efficiencies in the process, speed and cost of manufacturing. For now, the costs to research and begin implementing such a process are large. But the future is clear, says Michael Hayes, the lead engineer for Boeing's non-metal based 3D printing team. Five years from now, designing in three dimensions will mean that each part will be designed to perform several functions, rather than just one, he says.

Whether for leisure or line production, the predicted effects of the 3D printing process are manifold and immense. All it takes is a few big companies to sign on to set in motion a major shift in global markets, Sherman says. "These companies don't see the technology as ripe yet," he said. "Once they take a step in that direction, that's when it will really have its impact."

Image: Keith Kissel

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Rose Eveleth

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Rose Eveleth is a freelance writer, producer and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, OnEarth, Discover, New York Times, Story Collider and Radiolab. She holds degrees from the University of California, San Diego and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure