Will 3-D Printing Challenge Traditional Manufacturing?
They said the radio would kill live performance, but instead it helped popularize artists like never before. They said television and VHS would kill the movies, but they just provided new places to watch films. So why is China, factory to the world, scared of a little 3-D printing?
According to Mark Mills, a blogger at Forbes.com, at home 3-D printing could take away China's greatest manufacturing advantage: cheap labor. A machine on a desktop that can do the job of 30 factory workers swings the momentum away from China an it's endless supply of labor, and puts the value of a product in the hands of the designers.
Since innovation and design remain America's strong suits (think Apple or Google), Mills argues that 3-D printing could help America preserve its lead over China in the coming century. Fabbaloo, a blog that specializes in 3-D printing, echoes Mills' hypothesis, even if they quibble with his timeline.
Optimistic stuff, especially considering that China is getting better at the design end of things, and that the Europeans are hardly slouches in the design department themselves (Ikea and BMW anyone?). But reversing the ascent of the world's second greatest power? Founding a trillion-dollar industry? The miracles attributed to 3-D printing seem to grow by the day.
Undoubtedly, 3-D printing will profoundly affect how consumers obtain the objects they desire. But projections about 3-D printing replacing all manufacturing ignore how economies of scale help bring down the cost of the many complex raw materials used in the most highly coveted products. A 3-D printer may excrete a great plastic mug or metallic ring, but until they can spit out an iPad or a car, most traditional factories won't go anywhere.