US manufacturing output has steadily increased since the end of World War II, but manufacturing jobs peaked around 1975 and have been declining ever since. As we lose jobs to faraway places, a big question arises: What are Americans to do for work? 3D printing may be a big part of the answer to that question. It is already creating jobs, many of which are small businesses.
Regional and Distributed Manufacturing Because 3D printers can make entire parts or products with fewer machines, fewer steps, and therefore fewer people, they can eliminate the benefits of making things where labor is cheap. This creates opportunities for both big and small companies.
Because chasing cheap labor is unnecessary in a 3D printed world, this technology can break the grip of centralized manufacturing because it democratizes manufacturing and redistributes it 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, by small, independent fabricators. Because 3D printing substantially reduces the labor costs of manufacturing, these fabricators can offer manufacturing services close to the point of need. All of the services in the supply and distribution chain follow these regional fabricators.
3D printing the growth of small businesses There are two sides to the 3D printing industry: industrial and consumer. The consumer side is almost entirely small businesses.
3D printing is also a springboard for many other types of small businesses. A new breed of service-oriented business is starting up around the 3D printing of parts. These small businesses service the 3D printing industry. Others are using the technology to start small businesses, such as companies that 3D print toys, customized wedding cake toppers and accessories, jewelry, and models of what you will look like after cosmetic surgery. The US Marine Corps stated in a recent report that it expects 3D printing will allow many small businesses to compete with the big players in the defense contracting industry.
New Businesses, New Jobs Of course my crystal ball is not perfect, but some types of 3D printing-related jobs are suggested by its strengths.
Regional manufacturing means many factories will be independent fabricators. A growing number of 3D printing fabricators can be found throughout the world. 3D printing fabricators are the regional and distributed manufacturers of the 3D printing age. They are the employers of the factory workers of the 3D printing–fueled manufacturing renaissance. Individually, they may not employ a large number of people, but together they will be a major source of factory jobs. They may be traditional machine shops that add 3D printers or they may own only 3D printers.
As more and more 3D printers are sold, they will probably be networked. 3D printer networks like 3DHubs, which connects users to thousands of consumer-grade 3D printers around the world, are already springing up. Many of the printer owners are one-person fabricator shops.
3D printable digital blueprints are a company’s crown jewels. If they lose control of them, their businesses could be destroyed. Several start-ups have their sights set on this problem.
Computer programmers in the 3D printing job market will be like kids in a candy shop. They and their businesses will be in high demand to write, update, and manage software to meet 3D printing–related software needs for customization, design, manufacturing, quality control, and many other needs yet to be discovered.
Making Us Makers, Again We are all makers at heart. For all of human history, except the last hundred years or so, when people needed something they made it. Then came the industrial revolution and eventually we became buyers, not makers. Today’s makers and small businesses are one important key to job creation. A quarter of US manufacturing companies employ fewer than five people and 60% of new jobs generated from 2009 to 2013 were created by small businesses. 3D printing can take us back to our maker roots, fostering technical innovation, new businesses, and jobs we never heard of.
John Hornick is the author of the new book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World. He has been a counselor and litigator in the Washington, D.C. office of the Finnegan IP law firm for over 30 years, advising clients about how 3D printing may affect their businesses. Hornick also frequently writes about 3D printing, and has lectured about 3D printing all over the world.