Miracle of 3D printing could save European manufacturing
WHEN Joseph Schumpeter described capitalism as a process of creative destruction more than 70 years ago, he couldn't have conceived of the miracle that is 3D printing.
Yet this hair-raising technology is about to tear apart existing structures in a way that would undoubtedly have shocked even Schumpeter, a great economist struck by the free market's revolutionary, anti-conservative tendencies.
Remarkably, 3D printing allows actual objects to be designed and created (or "printed") surprisingly quickly with a computer connected to a printer-like device, using special material (often plastic, but increasingly almost anything) as "ink" and "paper".
With the costs of the machinery nearing mass-market levels, 3D printing is poised to take off, blurring the distinction between digital and physical realms, democratising manufacturing and turning large chunks of the global economy upside-down.
Yet the news that the first workable gun has been produced with a 3D printer will have reawakened the inner Luddite in many observers. Surely, many will argue, such a technology is far too dangerous to be unleashed on the world: imagine what terrorists could do with it.
It's a seemingly compelling but ultimately flawed argument. The benefits of 3D printing are so massive that it would be economic suicide for any nation to ban the technology, or regulate it out of existence.
It would certainly be equally mad to downplay its risks, and its safe use will require a major change in policing techniques, but the benefits from its mass adoption will outweigh its costs.
The new technology will be the first real challenge to the traditional top-down economics of mass production for manufactured goods.
This has already happened in the services sector and the digital world, with the rise of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and the ability for self-publishing authors and music artists to sell directly to the public; now this decentralisation of power will also happen in manufacturing.
Big will no longer necessarily be beautiful when it comes to making things, undoing centuries of lessons learnt from the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Taylorist production processes.
At present, it makes sense to produce large numbers of identical objects in a cheap location, such as China, ship them to the West and sell them in large supermarkets or online from equally large warehouses.
That traditional model won't die out, but will have to coexist in a growing number of areas with a new, truly just-in-time bespoke industry, where manufactured goods will be produced to consumers' exact specification and dispatched to them from a local plant within hours.
For the time being at least, such products will be more expensive, and so won't grab all of the market, but they will become a very substantial business.
There will also be an explosion in self-production and DIY manufacturing; making things using one's own equipment may even become almost as common as cooking one's own food or uploading one's own pictures to a social network.
One can now buy a proper second-hand 3D printer for a few thousand pounds and the price will keep on falling; eventually, they could become as ubiquitous as microwave ovens.
Given that economies of scale will no longer be so essential, 3D printing will drastically reduce the barriers to entry to start-ups. Anti-trust policy will become obsolete. The influx of new competitors will shake up many industries, just as old oligopolies built around intellectual property have already been smashed.
One interesting case study is Makielab, a London-based firm which allows users to design a truly bespoke doll; when a child or its parents are satisfied with the design, they can order a 10 inch model for £69.99 (€82.75).
Expect vast numbers of such players to emerge, providing customers with apps and websites. Some will succeed, many will fail, fortunes will be made and lost in a great 3D bubble, but all will do Schumpeter proud.
Again, there will still be plenty of room for Chinese, mass-produced models; but the disruption in areas where 3D printing already works well – including furniture, cutlery, machine tools, car components, toys, garden equipment and so on – will be intense. Some retailers will be disintermediated and go bust, just as music stores have been destroyed by Apple's iTunes.
As choice becomes boundless, the economics of the long tail – a concept originally coined by Chris Anderson in a book on the subject – will apply to even more markets. The digitalisation of the music industry, and the rise of multi-channel TV and download on demand, mean that neither are as dominated by a few big hits or mass market networks. Instead, the marketplace has fragmented into hundreds of niches. The same will now happen elsewhere.
Manufacturing has come a long way since the days when Henry Ford supposedly told his customers that they could have a car in any colour they wished, as long as it was black, but 3D printing will take customisation to its logical conclusion.
Choices will often be created or supervised by consumers themselves; in extremis, micro-markets will consist of just one customer who really, really wants a very large and very bright green kitchen table.
Some manufacturing activity will therefore be reshored to the UK, with factories based in rich countries becoming increasingly viable once again as machines price out even Chinese workers and proximity becomes essential. 3D printing will be a partial saviour of European manufacturing.
But it will be an even more automated industry that emerges, and few of the jobs – there are always lots, albeit in fresh areas, when new technologies emerge, contrary to Luddite fears – will actually be on anything that remotely resembles a factory floor.
Yet all of these developments, which will begin to become noticeable in the next few years, may only represent the first stages of the 3D revolution. Far more complex items will become printable, a development which would truly change the world.
Anthony Atala, of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, recently harnessed a 3D printer with living cells as the "ink" to create a transplantable kidney. Even restaurants could be partly automated.
Jeff Lipton, of Seraph Robotics, argues that food will be 3D printing's killer app, and has demonstrated how scientifically precise cakes can be produced, feeding all the usual ingredients into the machine.
Eventually, even governments will be threatened by the 3D printing revolution. In a world of endless choice, who will put up with one size fits all public services and flawed, bureaucratic decision making?
If they want to redeem themselves, the politicians will need to find a way of preventing maniacs from abusing this marvellous technology, while allowing a generation of visionary entrepreneurs to use it to engineer a new, bottom-up industrial revolution.