Will the U.S. conquer Chinese? Manufacturing might


It’s been 30 years since 3D Systems Corp employee Chuck Hall built and used the first functional 3D printer, but not until recently has there been an immense explosion in the innovation, design and multi-faceted capabilities of 3D printers.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it also known, is a process of making a solid object of almost any shape from a digital model or program. 3D printing is achieved via an additive process, where multiple layers of material are used to construct different shapes. 3D printing is also distinct from traditional manufacturing methods, which often rely on the removal of material by techniques such as sawing or piercing.

No one really knows for sure the level of impact 3D printing may have on various fields such as health, defence, food production, and of course, the biggest mystery of all, what it will do to manufacturing.

The global manufacturing sector is currently dominated by mostly East Asian countries such as India, Taiwan, and especially China. A lot of the economic power currently afforded to China is driven by their ability to monopolise on mass manufacturing, and the  exportation of manufactured goods to Western nations, sometimes for more than twice the price of production. Countries like China can do this due to a much lower minimum wage than is legal in most Western nations, and have a much larger unskilled workforce.

“A lot of the objects that we use now in everyday life are created in mass manufactured situations such as factories and assembly lines, in places like China and other countries where they can afford to still conduct manufacturing with profit… in the U.S., we see a more post-industrial situation,” said Thomas Birtchnell, lecturer of sociology at the University of Wollongong and author of ‘Four Visions, Three Dimensions: the Future of 3D Printing’.

This ‘post-industrial situation’ Thomas mentions is the current state of most Western nations, which rely heavily on outsourcing manufacturing and other (largely) low skill industries to developing countries, leaving an emphasis on information and service sectors. But the emergence and rapid evolution of 3D printing may alter this trend.

“There is a lot of debate about how this will change into the future, and the role of 3D printing in changing this future,” Dr Birtchnell said.

What many seem to think 3D printing will lead to is a ‘localisation’ of manufacturing; that is, that countries such as the U.S. will rely less on importing cheap assembly line produced goods from China, and begin to reclaim their own manufacturing base.

“If China wants to continue to be a global exporter, and stick with that model they have been using for the last thirty years, they have no choice but to move to 3D printing and to decentralised manufacturing around the world. The export model is dead,” said Richard D’Aveni, Bakala Professor of Strategy at Dartmouth School of Business.

So will this move towards localisation, as well as the United States’ current upper hand in leading the way with 3D printer technologies, cause a massive resurgence of U.S. dominance in the manufacturing sector?

“It’s not going to transfer giant advantages to American companies where they are going to dominate and take over markets. Like any other advances, the advantages of 3D printers and the industrial internet that will connect them together will diffuse around the world… But I think American companies will be the leaders,” Mr D’Aveni said.

The traditional model of manufacturing has been dominated by the assembly line, which gained prominence in the early 1900’s when Henry Ford installed conveyor belts in factories to speed up the process of automobile construction. Since then, robotic labour has displaced a large amount of the worker base in developed nations, and on top of this, the expansion of unskilled, low wage workers within the global south has driven most manufacturing to developing nations. But the emergence of 3D printing may completely destroy the traditional model of the assembly line.

“This process will eliminate the assembly line… 3D printers are going to become the intelligent robots of the future,” D’Aveni said.

The Beginning of Industry: Will America take back their former glory? Source: WordPress

This potential move towards 3D printing may also see an increase in consumer input manufacturing and consumer customisation of manufactured products, as the price of home use 3D printers continues to drop, and middle-class consumers start to see the viability of 3D printers in their own homes and businesses.

“The dream of 3D printing is to somehow bring consumers closer to the production process, to the production and creation of objects… Within this dream is the idea of mass customisation, that people can make their own objects according to their own parameters and interests,” Dr Birtchnell said.

But with this increased desire for customisation and consumer input production is a large shift away from the typical business model of manufacturing, to people being able to, and maybe even eventually relying on, manufacturing their own goods. It may be that the future of manufacturing will be restricted to the development, design, and distribution of CAD programs for 3D printer use, rather than any form of hands-on production.

But while some experts think 3D printing is going to cause a massive shift in the mass manufacturing business model, others disagree with the purported level of impact it will have on the assembly line, and particularly the unskilled worker base of the global south. So before we even have to consider how 3D printing might affect the power play between the U.S. and China, we need to establish whether it will have any lasting impact at all.

“3D printing is not going to dramatically impact mass manufacturing… It’s not going to take away mass manufacturing jobs, nor is it going to change the mass production/retail paradigm we have all become used to,” said Melba Kurman, technology analyst and author of ‘Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing’.

“The impact of 3D printing on the global economy is going to be more subtle and gradual.”

On top of this, this ‘subtle and gradual’ impact may have time to slowly disperse across world markets, meaning that the current leaders in the global market will have time to adapt to the changes 3D printing will bring, and adopt the technologies that emerge for themselves. Countries like China could implement and adapt to the changes brought about by 3D printing, and won’t necessarily feel the weight of emerging US skilled manufacturing.

“In the past two years China has really picked up speed… I think China is eventually going to become one of the world leaders in 3D printer technology,” Ms Kurman said.

One Device to Make Them All: The MakerBot Replicator, one of the more popular 3D printers that is beginning to revolutionize the way we look at manufacturing. Source: Flickr

One Device to Make Them All: The MakerBot Replicator, one of the more popular 3D printers that is beginning to revolutionize the way we look at manufacturing. Source: Flickr

Many futurists have also speculated on the potential for 3D printers in the far future, and how involved it will be in various aspects of our lives.

“You’ll get your body scanned and a 3D printer will print your clothes,” said Thomas Frey, senior futurist for the DaVinci Institute. “Someday in the future, if you get tired of your house, you could grind it up and reprint it.”

Frey believes that within the next 20 years 3D printers will dominate production, even in the areas of food and medicine; and that along with this, manufacturing will become a user-generated, online, customisable exercise, and that jobs and businesses will need to adapt to this changing market.

“The future of manufacturing is local”, he said. “It’s hyper-individualised. It’s hyper-customisable, with built-in electronics connected to the Web.”

So what are China and the U.S. currently doing, to cash in on this potentially market-altering technology that is 3D printing?

US President Barack Obama, highlighted the the critical role of 3D printing in strengthening the manufacturing sector at a recent press conference, and urged Congress to invest in 3D printing ventures to “guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made in America.”

 “There are things we can do, right now, to accelerate this trend. Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio. A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything,” the President said.

And in China, new ‘niche’ companies are emerging, and making money off, designing and producing custom or low-volume items that aren’t being mass manufactured.

3-D printing pioneer Scott Crump, co-founder and chairman of Stratasys, said that the aim for Chinese 3D printing businesses currently is to compete with alternative US manufacturing schemes, while maintaining the traditional assembly line manufacturing model. However, the U.S. is also focusing on doing the same.

“With 3-D printing, we’re expanding in the niches that aren’t covered,” he said. “This concept of bringing the manufacturing back local is a disruptor, but I don’t think it’s a disruptor where it necessarily reduces the total build in places like China.”

3D printing is certainly going to shake things up in the world of manufacturing. Whether it completely annihilates the traditional assembly line, or causes localisation to the point of obliterating the Chinese export market, or maybe even destroying any prospect of a commercial manufacturing model altogether, is yet to be seen. But it certainly seems that if anyone is going to suffer from a major overhaul to the manufacturing system it will be China. It may be that the U.S. will use this opportunity to take back the manufacturing might established by Ford 100 years ago, or China may just rise to the challenge, and show their innovative, economic, and technological prowess to an already developed Western world.


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