3D printing is poised to revolutionize the manufacturing industry. What impact will that have on today’s manufacturing jobs?
My wife drives a Honda, which we bought second-hand. But if I wanted to, today I could print a new life-sized or miniature Honda at home, using a 3D printer and computer files which are freely available at Honda’s website.
OK, it wouldn’t be a real car but a plastic model — which is usually what comes to mind when people think about 3D printing. Now that’s starting to change.
3D printing – or additive manufacturing by its technical name – is today used on a commercial scale to make everything from aircraft parts to prosthetic arms and legs. Last year, turnover for 3D printing totalled around US$ 777 million and could rise to over US$ 8.4 billion by 2025, according to a study by Lux Research.
Today prototyping makes up 95 per cent of the market for 3D printing, allowing engineers to make and test components or parts for vehicles, aircraft and so on without having to retool factories or wait for components to arrive. The market for consumer goods is also poised to explode.
How does 3D printing differ from “subtractive” or traditional manufacturing? In their recent book, “Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing”, Cornell researcher Hod Lipson and technology analyst Melba Kurman write that 3D printing will make it vastly easier and cheaper to produce complex products.
3D printers will eliminate the need for assembly, requiring fewer raw materials and shorter supply chains. Factories won’t need physical inventories anymore, because they’ll be able to print products on demand. It will even be possible to scan and print replicas, just like you would a computer file.
The skills required to operate a 3D printer are very different from the ones you need to operate a printing press or a lathe. In fact, small and easy-to-use printers may eventually allow consumers to print many of their own products at home.
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What does this mean for the world of work? Will assembly lines or manufacturing as we know them still exist in 20 years?
Today, electronic consumer goods, like laptop computers, are churned out in gigantic compounds with hundreds of thousands of workers. In the future, we might be printing our own bespoke laptops at home. Some experts have argued this will have an even more profound impact on the world of work than the Industrial Revolution.
Just as personal computers blurred the lines between journalists and typesetters, 3D printing will make the roles of people who work in product development, retail services and manufacturing harder to distinguish.
Take, for example, the car company that wants to move from printing prototypes of components to printing those components at scale. That would effectively mean that its model-makers would be doing the work of assembly-line workers, which could lead to contractual disputes and complaints over deskilling, intellectual property and so on.
That’s one of the many issues organizations like the ILO will have to bear in mind as the 3D printing revolution takes hold. Another is how to help assembly-line workers prepare for the transition by anticipating the kinds of skills they’ll need in a 3D-printer world. For example, workers may need to specialize in learning about the different combinations of raw materials that you can use in a printer or to know how to look at the electronic blueprints to spot defects.
Just like the Industrial Revolution, 3D printing may destroy jobs, but it will also create new ones. And because 3D printing is likely to require fewer raw materials and create less waste, they will probably be greener.
I am invited to dinner tonight. I wonder if my host has prepared the meal with Foodini, a USD $1,400 3D food printer that can even make ravioli.