Manufacturing is one of the oldest and most established industries on the face of the earth. The large-scale production of physical objects using machinery was first introduced by Britain during the industrial revolution. Transitioning to mass production relied heavily — if not exclusively — on the manufacturing industry. People from earlier periods rarely saw such abundance because of the limitations associated with artisan craftsmanship. Most of us now take manufacturing entirely for granted. Almost every standard consumer product imaginable — om toothbrushes and disposable cups to sidewalk dumpsters and automobiles — is the result of manufacturing.
Innovation and 3D Printing
Unfortunately, for a long time, manufacturing was primarily reserved for large businesses that could afford the capital investments. That meant innovators and inventors could rarely disrupt the market. Things have changed considerably, thanks to the digital revolution. Editors at The Economist wrote about the impact of 3D printers on manufacturing. They explain how the technology allows users to prototype ideas much faster than utilizing more traditional manufacturing methods. That means failed experiments incur minimal costs, and users can test insights almost immediately thereafter.
3D Printing in Big Business
All the same, some of the most recognizable companies in the world are on the brink of using 3D printing (i.e., additive manufacturing) for major industrial components. Martin LaMonica at MIT Technology Review reported that General Electric’s (GE) aviation division was “preparing to produce a fuel nozzle for a new aircraft engine by printing the part with lasers rather than casting and welding the metal.” The news had serious implications for the aviation and aerospace industry. When market leaders begin to make widespread use of 3D printing, almost everyone else will follow suit.
The Future of 3D Printing
Analysts at Deloitte predicted big things for 3D printing in their report on additive manufacturing. The data they highlight suggests that investments in 3D printing will grow to a whopping 5.2 billion US dollars by 2020 — that’s less than two years away! The growth won’t be limited to American businesses, either. 3D printing is a global phenomenon likely to proliferate boundlessly.
Companies like GE can invest an inordinate amount of resources into 3D printing, but smaller players don’t have that luxury. Startups and small businesses don’t necessarily have the capital necessary to procure and maintain 3D printing equipment. Time could be another limiting factor since novices can expect a reasonable learning curve. That’s true of using almost any new technology. Fortunately, the free market has responded with a variety of solutions, including 3D printing services and beginners’ guides. Tapping into external resources like those lets startups and small businesses circumvent an otherwise costly endeavor.
Drawbacks of 3D Printing
It’s important to realize that 3D printing is no flawless godsend. The technology has some very real limitations that users should acknowledge. Carl Bass wrote about the myths and truths of 3D printing in his Wired Op-Ed. According to him, 3D printing won’t completely supplant other forms of manufacturing. He emphasizes the facts that the ecosystem is constantly changing and that the prevailing business models are often inadequate. Those pointers are key, but it’s his conclusion that has implications for the labor market. Bass is under the impression that it’s highly unlikely that 3D printing would bring manufacturing back to the US in its traditional sense. The promise and prosperity that 3D printing could yield will unfold very differently.
This is all to say that those interested in exploring 3D printing, as a hobby or career path, have numerous options. Yes, barriers to entry certainly exist, but there’s also no shortage of available resources designed to help people overcome them. Anticipate long hours devoted to trial and error. Those persistent enough to learn from their mistakes are the most likely to master 3D printing.