3D Printing & Job Creation

By John Hornick, Founder, 3D Printing Working Group at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, L.L.P

One Machine Does It All

US manufacturing jobs have been declining since 1975, but manufacturing has steadily increased.[1] This means US manufacturers are efficient, making more things with fewer people. So where will tomorrow’s jobs come from? As I explain in my book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World (available on Amazon or Kindle), 3D printing may be a big part of the answer to that question.

Bringing jobs home

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Because 3D printers can make entire parts or products with fewer machines and therefore fewer people, they can eliminate the benefits of making things where labor is cheap. The implications are obvious: more manufacturing in America (or any country with high labor costs), but not many jobs running the machines. If it takes ten people to operate the traditional machines needed to make a single part, it may take only one person to operate the 3D printer that makes that part in America. To the optimist, that is one more manufacturing job than we had without 3D printing. To the pessimist, we still need nine more jobs. But the pessimist is missing an important point: if the part is made in America by a local worker operating the 3D printer, most of the supply, support, and distribution chain will be here too.

Regional and Distributed Manufacturing

Because chasing cheap labor is unnecessary in a 3D printing-based economy, this technology can break the grip of centralized manufacturing. But don’t assume that huge factories will simply replace their traditional machines with 3D printers. As 3D printers become more and more capable of making almost any finished product, centralized mass production may no longer be needed. 3D printing will pull manufacturing away from the manufacturing hubs and redistribute it, product by product, among thousands or tens of thousands of smaller factories across the globe. Many parts and products will be made regionally, close to where they will be used.

This is already happening. Great examples are Adidas’s Speedfactory,[2] a network of automated 3D printing factories where “each consumer can locally get what they want, when they want it,” and the UK’s William Cook company, which saved 200 Sheffield jobs by investing in 3D printing for regional manufacturing.[3]

Think about the horse

The factory of the future will be inhabited mostly by 3D printers, robots, and other advanced machines, all driven by software. So if 3D printing factories will not employ many people, how will 3D printing create jobs? Think about the horse. When the horse was the main form of transportation, there were many horse-related jobs: saddle makers, blacksmiths, wagon makers, etc. When the automobile came along, most of those jobs were lost. But think of how many new jobs were created by the invention of the automobile. 3D printing has the same potential. It will spawn businesses, products, services, and jobs that are as unimaginable today as the auto industry was at the dawn of the twentieth century.

New Businesses, New Jobs

Regional manufacturing means most players will be independent fabricators. A growing number of 3D printing fabricators can be found throughout the world. Some have been 3D printing for a long time, operating as rapid-prototyping shops. Some are traditional machine shops that added 3D printers. Some are start-ups. New companies like iMaterialise and Shapeways are well equipped with state of the art 3D printers and ready to print parts and products at multiple locations.

3D printing fabricators are the regional and distributed manufacturers of the 3D printing age. Individually, they may not employ a large number of people, but together they will be a major source of factory jobs.

Customization is one of 3D printing’s strongest points. It is hard to imagine today how deeply it will work its way into our everyday lives, but I suspect that in 2025 using customized 3D printed products will be as common as using mass-produced ones today. Customizing products is a job generator.

Computer programmers in the 3D printing job market will be like kids in a candy shop. They will be in high demand to write, update, and manage software to meet 3D printing–related software needs for anticounterfeiting, authenticating parts and products, customization, design, encryption, manufacturing, networking, quality control, and many other needs yet to be discovered.

3D printable digital blueprints are a company’s crown jewels. If they lose control of them, their businesses could be destroyed. Enter the security entrepreneurs. Several start-ups have their sights set on this problem and have created data-management, encryption, and blueprint-security companies.

Innovators Needed

Skilled 3D printing–related jobs soared 1,384 percent from 2010 to 2014 and were up 103 percent from 2013 to 2014. The three jobs most in demand were industrial and mechanical engineers and software developers.[4] These jobs are being filled by the innovators of today. Tomorrow’s innovators are kids today. They are just starting to be initiated into the world of 3D printing, using consumer-grade machines.

Making Us Makers, Again

For all of human history, except the last hundred years or so, humans made the things they needed. Then came the industrial revolution and eventually we became buyers, not makers. Makers and small businesses are the key to job creation. A quarter of US manufacturing companies employ fewer than five people[5] and 60% of new jobs generated from 2009 to 2013 were created by small businesses.[6] 3D printing can take us back to our maker roots, fostering technical innovation, new businesses, and jobs we never heard of.

[1] Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers, “Output vs. Employment: America’s Disappearing Jobs,” Global Research, February 28, 2013, http://www.globalresearch.ca/ouput-vs-employment-americas-disappearing-jobs/5324614.

[2] Corey Clarke; “Adidas Reveals Plans for 3D printing ‘Speedfactory;” 3D Printing Industry News; January 17, 2017; https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/adidas-reveals-plans-3d-printing-speedfactory-103519/.

[3] Sarah Saunders; “Additive Manufacturing Keeps Production Local: William Cook Saves 200 Jobs With Investment in Sheffield 3D Printing Factory;” 3DPrint.com; March 21, 2017; https://3dprint.com/168432/3d-printing-factory-sheffield/ .

[4] Sandra Helsel, “Analysis: Demand for 3D Printing Skills Soars,” Inside 3D Printing, September 12, 2014, http://inside3dprinting.com/analysis-demand-for-3D printing-skills-soars/?utm_source=Inside%203D%20Printing%20Latest%20News&utm_campaign=268be65f09-Inside_3D_Printing_Daily_News_09_12_2014_9_11_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_861dc04374-268be65f09-226645849.

[5] Melba Kurman, “Carrots, Not Sticks: Rethinking Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights for 3D printed Manufacturing,” 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing 1, no. 1 (2014): 50, citing www.census.gov/econ/susb.

[6] Staff writer, “The Stats,” Money, March 2015, 24.