The 3D printing revolution and how it will transform our society and economy
By Sofia Ferrer
What if you could print yourself a pair of shoes, a nice set of drinking cups, and some intricate home decor, all from the comfort of your couch. You could choose from an array of colors and styles, and soon enough, you would have the finished product before your eyes. Sounds like magic, right? This is the future of 3D printing. 3D printing, or “additive manufacturing”, is revolutionizing the “how” and “what” of economics as it promotes increased efficiency in the manufacturing process and reduces the use of resources in making products to only raw materials, and as time goes on, we will make even more remarkable leaps towards a transformative 3D printing revolution. While additive manufacturing is still a work in progress, having space to improve in function before it becomes a key part of our society, it will one day promise several unique advantages for suppliers and consumers alike, such as mass customization, convenience, low costs, increase in skilled labor positions, and reduced waste. Whether all this is for better or worse is up for debate, though it is worth recognizing that while 3D printing will completely transform the way our world and economy function, our society will accordingly adapt to these changes, allowing us to fully reap the benefits of this 3D revolution.
One key transformation that would result from the future of 3D printing is efficiency in manufacturing. Now, it may seem that this means that additive manufacturing will contribute to the demise of factories and everything related to manufacturing currently in existence, and perhaps this is true. Yet, if we were to embrace these changes, we would be able to enjoy the fruits of this transformation. For one, 3D printing avoids waste since one only needs to input the required amount of material, with nothing wasted as is often the case in traditional manufacturing and the fashion industry. Further increasing efficiency is the fact that 3D printing allows for local assembly as it is not dependent on goods from around the globe to function. In the case of a malfunction, the process could not be simpler: additive manufacturing allows for easy correction of errors, further reducing waste and maximizing the use of resources. Moreover, companies could make products as needed, ensuring that quantity supplied meets quantity demanded every time with little to no risk of shortages or surpluses.
Thus, this alternate form of manufacturing decreases opportunity costs as resources are utilized to their full extent in the creation of products, preventing the opportunity cost that would result from wasted material. Because of this maximizing of resources, plants operating with 3D printing machinery will be able to produce on their productions possibilities curve, implying efficiency and resourcefulness and thus boosting the industry’s profits. Moreover, because of the low production costs and the technological improvements that would result from 3D printing, supply will increase, increasing quantity while lowering price. All this leads to flourishing industries, a growing economy, and a happy client-base who can reap the benefits of low prices.
And yet, eventually 3D printing might take us in an entirely new direction: producing our own products at home. Even though currently this technology is high-cost and time-consuming, rapid progress in speed and cost promises a future in which owning a 3D printing machine is the “norm”, and we will all be making our own garments, supplies, and other needs. Once more we may consider what we might lose in the shift from manufacturing to self-production—the question naturally arises: what about businesses and the manufacturing industry? If everyone produces their own goods, there may not be demand for mass-produced goods as people may favor the low expenses and convenience that arise from producing one’s own products at home.
This is a valid concern, yet I would argue that the advantages that this transformation would bring surpasses the risks, and in fact, the risks may be smaller than we think as new venues will open up as society adapts to these changes. For example, as demand for 3D printers rises, new markets will budge into place, or existing ones will be enhanced—3D printer-making companies, raw material industries, electricity companies, and any other company or market that supports the 3D printing industry. Moreover, we would see a rise in skilled labor as engineers would be crucial in the further advancement of the 3D printing evolution. In the meantime, society would benefit from the extreme low costs, convenience, personalization, and efficiency that at-home 3D printing can offer. Additionally, 3D printing is not limited to the production of goods. Several industries would benefit from implementing this technology, industries as diverse as food, medicine. Even so, this future is still relatively distant. In the meantime, we seem to be making faster progress in the realm of mass production via 3D printing. This technology would allow for mass customization, offering consumers the same personalized products that they would have if they were producing in their own homes.
Finally, a major transformation that would result from this revolution is the reduced need for international trade. As only raw materials are necessary for producing via 3D printing technology, this manufacturing process would not demand the same diverse set of resources around the world in order to make products. While a shift to less international trade may seem dramatic, even worrisome, it is important to realize that perhaps it would be for the best. After all, this would mean that there is no need for trade, and therefore there is nothing lost in its reduction. Furthermore, countries that may have been left out in international trade due to poor development would flourish under these new circumstances.
The revolutionary future of 3D printing is quickly emerging. While the fashion industry has been implementing this technology for a while in the form of haute couture designs, it is now in the process of developing 3D printed projects of wearable garments, and we may soon be able to print our own clothing in the space of our very homes. Major companies like Adidas and General Electric have already teamed with the 3D printing industry to apply this technology to their businesses. Numerous other industries either have already or are in the process of shifting to 3D printing technology. Even though there still exist some inefficiencies in 3D printers themselves, such as high cost, low speed, waste of ink, and waste of electricity, advancements in the technology gives us hope for a successful 3D printing future. Ultimately, society will mold itself to accommodate for the transformations caused by the 3D printing revolution as it will invite new markets, enhance existing ones, and boost the economies of countries that have been left out of international trade in the past. As this technology improves and our society adapts to best meet our changing needs, our economy will flourish with efficiency, profitable industries, and new skilled jobs, and consumers will benefit from the low prices, convenience, and customizability that this revolution has to offer.
This is Sofia Ferrer’s first contribution to Enter Stage Right. (c) 2021 Sofia Ferrer