Science Progress | Where science, technology, and progressive policy meet

Will the World Be Flatter in 3D?

The Rise of 3D Printing Begs Important Questions about Manufacturing in the United States

SOURCE: Courtesy of Makerbot® Industries Makerbot's home 3D printing set can be purchased for under $2,000 and can produce just about anything that could fit within a 5.5 inch cube.

Scott Summit heads Bespoke Innovations, a company that prints custom prosthetics for its clients using 3D printing. In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Summit described the design of a limb he’s making for a client, saying, “We are designing a Porsche 911 aesthetic for him. It’s a really classic design with clean lines and timeless detailing.” 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been heralded as “revolutionary” by The Economist and The New York Times and is becoming the next big thing in American manufacturing.

According to Forbes, the technology costs one-tenth of what it did five years ago. If the cost continues to drop, and the technology continues to advance, 3D printing has the potential to massively decentralize manufacturing, changing how we design, manufacture, and shop. What is less clear is which countries will capitalize on 3D printing.

Rich Kalgaard, who writes for Forbes, wrote an article titled“3D Printing Will Revive American Manufacturing,” and Vivek Wadhwa of Singularity University claims that “China has many reasons to worry, and manufacturing will undoubtedly return to the U.S.—if not in this decade then early in the next.”

But what if 3D printing leads to greater globalization in manufacturing, displacing jobs to countries with greater percentages of high-skill, technical workers?

The world may be flatter in 3D.

Explanation and history

If you’re unfamiliar with 3D printing, here’s a quick summary.

A Computer Animated Drawing file with the dimensional specifications of a product is sent to a 3D printer. The printer then deposits thin layers of liquid (heated plastics or melted metal powders) until the object is formed in 3D (see it in action). This process is similar to how a desktop inkjet printer puts words on the page, but in three dimensions instead of two, hence the name 3D printing.

There are several ways of printing materials, and things get more complicated when you start discussing printing biological materials and nano scale printing.

The basics of the technology have been around for decades but were mostly used for prototypes. Models built using 3D printers allowed engineers and architects to see their designs and even test their strength. In the past few years, the technology has advanced, especially in the materials department, to the point that it is now possible to print durable plastics, carbon fiber, and even titanium at a relatively low cost.

But beyond prototypes, the technology is becoming increasingly integrated into mainstream manufacturing processes. General Electric, for example, uses 3D printing to make a transducer for its ultrasound scanner. Boeing prints components for its fighter jets. Xerox developed a printable silver ink that can be used to make mobile phone circuitry. And biomedical engineers are starting to experiment with printing using cells and hope to someday manufacture entire organs.

Consumers can now even buy 3D printers and use them to print chess pieces, shoes, iPod cases, and jewelry—as long as it fits within the dimensional constraints of the 3D printer. For example, a company called Cubify sells relatively inexpensive home 3D printers that can print anything that fits within a 5.5-inch cube.

Big players recognize 3D printing’s growth and potential. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos contributed $10 million to Makerbot, a company that sells consumer 3D printers.Craig Venter, famous for leading the first team to synthesize a cell with an artificial genome, is excited by the confluence of genetics and biological printing that could eventually lead to customizable life.

3D printing is thus very much a blossoming field. But as 3D printing becomes more ubiquitous, manufacturing industries in the United States must consider whether 3D printing is a competitive advantage, or if other countries will capitalize on the shift to additive manufacturing.

Why the world may be flatter in 3D

While there are arguments for why the United States will benefit disproportionately, 3D printing will have complicated consequences for manufacturing.

It is important to consider leapfrog effects in technology and the required level of expertise of workers operating 3D printers. 3D printing will favor the best ideas, and those ideas can come from anywhere, not just from within the United States.

Manufacturing has become increasingly automated and efficient. “Since 1975, manufacturing output has more than doubled, while employment in the sector has decreased by 31%. While these American job losses are indeed sobering, they are not an indication of declining U.S.”

Since machines have replaced rudimentary tasks, humans that are involved in the manufacturing process must increasingly use their heads. Those involved in manufacturing must be more technical and highly skilled. Yet a “recent report by Deloitte for the Manufacturing Institute, based on a survey of manufacturers, found that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled” in manufacturing in the United States. A world with 3D printing manufacturing will require an even more educated staff. 3D printing requires little or no physical labor, as most of the work is performed on a computer.

It appears that the United States may not be supplying the workforce needed to manage printers and design its way to the top in the future. According to the National Science Foundation, only “four percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2008 were in engineering. This compares with about 19 percent throughout Asia and 31 percent in China specifically.” Additionally, 70 percent of engineering doctoral candidates in the United States are foreign-born, and they’re starting to return home for better employment opportunities.

On the other side of the spectrum, youth are disenchanted by the image of a manufacturing job and do not consider entering this vein of work because of the stigma. According to economics reporter Louis Uchitelle, America is “losing its toolbox,” as reflected in a decrease in respect for craftsmanship.

In Germany it is a respected profession to become a craftsman or high-skilled manufacturer, and high school students have the option of entering apprenticeship programs. Thus, both on the highly skilled craftsman side and the college-educated engineer and design side, America may lose.

China now exports more high-technology products than does the United States, and major South Korean firms have upped their game, competing with the likes of Sony. While high-technology exports may not be the only determinant of economic success, they do indicate an advanced, technical labor force, which is relevant to 3D printing.

It is still possible that U.S. companies now outsourcing technologies to China will return some jobs to the United States if 3D printing decreases in cost, and labor costs in China continue to rise. Companies are seeing the benefits of centralizing their manufacturing and research and development operations, and some companies who previously off shored manufacturing are bringing those jobs back today.

But in a way, this trend is irrelevant in the long term.

The countries that will benefit most from 3D printing will probably be those best able to design software and to use that software to brainstorm new products. Physical objects will have two stages of creation: virtual and physical. The virtual products—computer files—will be able to be rapidly disseminated across the world. The disseminators will be brilliant engineers and designers, and the statistics show that the United States is not producing enough of those.

Federal government taking notice

The federal government has taken a few small steps toward meeting the demand for a high-skill labor force necessary for the United States to seize the 3D printing opportunity.

As part of the America COMPETES Act in 2007, the federal government increased scholarships for science, technology, engineering, and math teachers. The “Report to the President on Capturing Domestic Competitive Advantage in Manufacturing,” by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology brought the president’s attention to additive manufacturing.

In May the Department of Defense announced a $30 million project to establish an Institute for Additive Manufacturing to “accelerate research, development, and demonstration in additive manufacturing and transition technology to manufacturing enterprises within the United States.” This initiative is connected to a larger, $1 billion White House Initiative called the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, an Obama administration proposal that seeks to unite 15 multi-stakeholder manufacturing institutes composed of universities, industry, and federal agencies.

The federal government has also taken steps to encourage high-skill, technical immigrants to remain in the United States. The SMART Act, introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), would create a “new temporary visa for STEM graduates without eliminating any other green card categories.”

Manufacturing a second chance

The sector of our economy that once employed one-third of our labor force will see massive change in the coming 10 years to 15 years. The change may revitalize it, or it may lead to even fewer manufacturing jobs and greater dependence on foreign minds.

Wohler Associates, a consulting firm that studies additive manufacturing, estimatesthe industry will be worth $3.1 billion by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020. While the discoveries that are advancing 3D printing are coming out of American laboratories, what is currently needed are skilled, knowledgeable, creative workers to use these technological platforms to deliver goods to the market and to the average consumer.

Sophisticated designers will need to know material science to comprehend advantages to using different materials. They will probably also require multivariable calculus and advanced physics to shape the contours of their product. And finally, they must be creative so as to channel this exciting technology. The average adult will not be able to design products of high complexity and high value. If they own a 3D printer, it is more likely that they will download and print designs from websites.

It seems unlikely that the United States—which ranks 48th in quality of math and science education, according to the World Economic Forum, houses a shrinking proportion of the world’s engineers, and is supposedly declining in creativity—is well-positioned to take advantage.

3D printing is a second chance for American manufacturing. Let’s seize it.

Sam Finegold is the intern at Science Progress and a rising sophomore at Harvard College. At school he writes for the Harvard Political Review and also participates in Harvard Model Congress.

Comments on this article

By clicking and submitting a comment I acknowledge the Science Progress Privacy Policy and agree to the Science Progress Terms of Use. I understand that my comments are also being governed by Facebook's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.