On Labour, Unions and 3D Printing

The process of 3D printing is in many ways the inverse of the manufacturing processes. With employment figures still rebounding from post-recession levels, an unlikely new issue has entered the labour debate.

By: Matt King, staff writer

Conventional manufacturing uses human labour to chisel raw material down into specific shapes or moulds. And according to the technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa, that is an inefficient process. He told Forbes last year: “The more complex the product you want to create, the more labour is required and the greater the effort” — all of which translates into higher costs.

The process of 3D printing flips that convention. Instead of subtracting layers of material from raw input, 3D printing constructs an object from scratch by adding successive layers of thin raw material until the desired shape is achieved. This means there is no waste by-product and no additional cost to the complexity of an item.

Manufacturing with 3D printing can also be cheaper and less time-consuming. This is especially so when the process is employed for one-off projects such as prototypes or experiments with complex geometries.

The technology even makes possible the manufacturing of objects which, by traditional means, used to be impossible. These include, among others, complex objects like skeletal structures, human tissue and organs and even the theoretically-impossible Penrose triangle.

And for some, this new and more efficient way of manufacturing seems to herald a bleak future. In January, the Associated Press (AP) reported that “almost all the jobs disappearing are in industries that pay middle-class wages.” The reason for this disappearance: “Those jobs are being replaced…by machines and software that can do the same work better and cheaper.”

Indeed — 3D printing is rife in the global jobs debate . Not all agree that its impact is wholly negative, though — for many, it could also be a boon. But whatever the case, its potential to disrupt traditional manufacturing processes is as large as the technological revolutions currently sweeping industries such as media and telecommunications. Given the global reach of the manufacturing industry, 3D printing’s impact is poised to be even larger.

Why now?

This kind of technology has been around since the late 1980s, when companies used it for prototyping and product development purposes. Only recently, however, have companies begun to expand the technology into other aspects of production.

Phil Reeves, managing director of the 3D printing consultancy Econolyst, explains this shift to Arbitrage in a phone interview.

“It’s only in the last 10 years that companies have begun looking at 3D type technology as a way of changing their global supply chain,” says Reeves. “Before that, the technology was seen wholly as a tool to assist in the product development process — never as a manufacturing solution.”

Reeves recalls a friend who, many years ago, suggested the potential of 3D technology when applied to manufacturing processes during a speech at a leading industry conference.

“His views were almost seen as heretical, or humorous,” Reeves says.

The global manufacturing industry is now beginning to address and wrestle with the disruptive potential of 3D printing. But it’s impossible to pinpoint the precise moment when it began to turn mainstream — or at least more affordable to the general public.

On the supply side, costs of 3D printers — both consumer and industrial — have dropped to more affordable levels. On the demand side, there have been numerous changes in the global economy over the past decade that have given companies reasons to reconsider the technology.

For one, labour costs are consistently rising even in low-wage countries like China. The global recession, moreover, has inspired a political pressure on companies to create jobs locally.

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