The novelty of 3D printing has been fun to watch over the past 20+ years. What started off as an engineer’s dream, may end up as a world economies nightmare. When the rapid prototype machine was created in 1986, inventor Chick Hull of 3D Systems envisioned and machine that could inexpensively create a mini model of any design to help engineers adjust and improve their designs. 27 years later we have seen the first printing of an unborn baby’s face, Human and animal prosthetic limbs and countless of novelty toys. The scientific and engineering community seem to be in love with this new technology but are the implications to our global economy as this technology grows?
Several companies have already announced some early plans to use the 3D printer to their advantage. General Electric was reported by Bloomberg.com last May that they were working on replacing the 19 fuel nozzles needed for one of their engines used on planes with functioning 3D printed pieces. The piece that originally needed to have 20 separate pieces welded together could simply be printed as one. GE estimates that the new nozzle will be 5 times stronger and a full pound lighter than the original piece. GE isn’t alone in the idea, several companies across the planet are eyeing this much more cost effective way to make parts. Nike is printing cleats for their soccer shoes, Ford for on demand replacement parts and Mattel for prototypes of of toys.
Loss of global jobs could be staggering. Richard A. D’Aveni of Harvard business review states “As 3-D printing takes hold, the factors that have made China the workshop of the world will lose much of their force.” This doesn’t stop with China but will spread to all manufacturing countries and third world counties. Large companies will continue to improve their ability to print their own parts, this will reduce the need to import products from other countries, reduce all styles if global shipping and drastically reduce expected needs for inventory levels. Most companies will be now able to print on demand and only carry a minimal amount of product in their warehouses. Other companies will quit storing any products all together. Engineering design firms will only need to sell the major company the design plans and the large company like Ford or GE will print their own parts.
With this new business model the middle man in business will be completely removed from the equation. Companies that once relied upon a middle company to import goods for them to purchase can now contact the factory directly and simply buy the blueprints of the product they need. This will effectively remove or at the least dramatically reduce the “import/export” business.
As the printers and materials become cheaper, homes will have them. Homeowners will be able to print their own products without the need to travel to a store. Not only could they simply print items they may want or need, as the technology because easier to use, they could create their own products to suit specific needs. Another concern is if all that is needed to print a product is the blue print, how do companies defend their property to sell? The movie and music industry has been fighting this battle for the last 20 years and current manufactures may find themselves in the same boat.