Published On: Tue, Jul 3rd, 2012

A real Industrial Revolution: 3D printing and the impact on jobs

3D printing has been getting a lot of press recently with journalists breathlessly describing the latest and greatest thing that 3D printing can do: print human organs; print beautiful prosthetic legsprint complex parts for jet engines and so forth.  The range of items and materials available that can be printed is astounding and will get better over time.

3D printing is amazing today and will get better over time.

What is interesting to HistoryFuture, however, is the historical context of 3D printing and how it will impact our lives in the future.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution manufacturing (note Latin origin of manu factum “made by hand”) was done at home or in small workshops.  Many household items that we now purchase were made at home by the home owner.  As a result no money exchanged hands.  Other items were made in small workshops and were sold locally, nationally or internationally.  Manufacturing was a skilled operation and required the manufacturer to have a full skill set to make the particular item.   It was the industrial revolution that brought about specialisation of work activities and the monotony that accompanied that specialisation.  Given the fact that these items were manufactured by hand, output was directly linked to the number of people doing a particular task.  More people meant more products.  This is why India and China were the world’s economic powerhouses – they had more people to make more things than anybody else.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution India and China were economic powerhouses – more people meant more products.

The Industrial Revolution, which took place first in England and Scotland, before spreading to Northern Europe and the United States, was revolutionary because it was so disruptive to so many things over a period of half a century. The disruptive part was not simply that hand made products were now made by machines but the entire society and culture devoted to making those products changed, at home and abroad.

The cotton industry provides one good example.  The combination of mechanical cotton gins which radically enhanced the output of raw cotton per person, cotton mills which could process ginned cotton into threads and then weave into cloth and slave labour in the southern US producing cheap raw cotton crushed households and workshops that had previously been engaged in these activities.  Socially, people migrated from cottages into cities and the sale of cotton made the early industrialists incredibly wealthy.  The balance of power shifted in the world as Indian cotton output was wiped out by the sale of cheap British cloth, ruining the economy and destabilising the area politically.  Early industrialisation brought the West political, economic and military advantages over the rest of the world that are only now beginning to fade.

Early industrialisation brought the West huge advantages and chaos to the rest of the world.

Clearly, getting in early on an Industrial revolution helps.  Being late can set you back hundreds of years.

So how does 3D printing fit into this story? Many people think that this will bring back manufacturing and innovation to the West.  In this story China, whose low cost of building, low cost of capital, low cost of labour and ability to mobilise entire armies of young workers has made it so successful in the past decade, is a loser.  The West, with its fabled ability to innovate and create disruptive new products will be a winner.

This is wishful thinking. People need to stop thinking about the particular widget that can be printed and think of how it can disrupt the entire global economy.  This story suggests that people are going to be in for a rough ride.

Think of a product. It is manufactured in China.  Workers are involved in building the factory and operating the factory.  There are workers involved in transporting the raw materials to the factory.  There are workers who transport the products from the factory to warehouses. Workers are involved in building and operating those warehouses.  Workers take the product from the warehouse and load it onto a ship.  There are workers involved in building and operating the dockyard. There are workers involved in building and operating the ship.  The ship arrives at a dock in the West, having stopped off at other ports along the way.  Workers take the product off the ship and into a warehouse.  There are people involved in building and operating the port and the warehouses.  Workers take the product from the warehouse and transport it to another warehouse – Amazon, for example.  There are people involved in building and operating the heavy goods vehicle.  In the meantime, the product was designed by a few people, who developed a marketing and a sales strategy.  Other people made deals with wholesalers and retailers to hold and distribute their product.  Online, the product is ordered.  It is shipped from the warehouse and arrives at your door.  You open the box and are thrilled with your purchase.

Or you could go to your home office, find the design of what you want, press print on your 3D printer, wait 4 hours and return, thrilled with your product.

3D printing can wipe out all the jobs in a supply chain and all the jobs associated with that supply chain.    Those jobs will not be replaced.

3D printing has wiped out all of the jobs previously involved in the supply chain of that product.  Those jobs will not be replaced.  That is why 3D printing has the scope for being so disruptive.  In the story of what happens today there are a lot of jobs. Each step results in a sale and a purchase, numbers that are picked up as part of GDP statistics and are subject to taxation.  3D printing could result in millions of jobs being lost and a sharp decline in taxable revenues.  This will impact not just the West but the newly industrialised world.

Clearly, not all products will be or can be made using 3D printing.  Mass production is so good and so effective that it will take decades before 3D printing is in a position to really challenge the status quo.  HistoryFuture, however, focuses on long term trends and the likely impact that they will have on the environment, society, work, migration and the balance of power.

3D printing is a real industrial revolution.

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