Author | Esther Fuldauer
3D printing belongs to a class of techniques known as additive manufacturing, which builds objects layer-by-layer rather than through molding or subtractive methods. There is an excellent variety of materials that can be used, like plastic, metal, ceramics, glass, paper, and even living cells.
Additive manufacturing is leaping forward, silently and relentlessly transforming the world economy. Until now, 3D printing had been used primarily for rapid prototyping. However, the technology has evolved with widespread adoption, thanks to lowering prices. On the consumer side, prices for basic 3D printers reduced from $30,000 a few years ago to less than $1,000 for some models.
3D printing is not currently rival to the economies of scale found in mass-produced commodities. It still has great potential for highly customized consumer products created in small numbers. The technology is evolving though, and production numbers are rapidly scaling up.
An opportunity for developing countries
Until now, developing countries found many obstacles to build the manufacturing industry. Traditional manufacturing techniques are more expensive to start up. They require physical infrastructure, the machinery for each production, the workers, the suppliers.
Now that 3D printers are becoming cheaper, a new perspective is coming into place. The process is more flexible than traditional manufacturing. Local small manufacturers can quickly adapt to demand. Industries can simplify their supply chain by creating in-house 3D printed end-use and spare parts. Even though production remains modest, for the consumer market, 3D printing can achieve economy of scale with future developments.
From that point, 3D printing can also offer an alternative path for development, helping developing countries advance their industrial competitiveness without the need for substantial physical infrastructure investment.
A large enough 3D printer can create helpful resources and tools. Structural components for greenhouses to grow food, parts for solar panels in order to power them and, brought to size, even homes. Given that power tools and heavy machinery are unaffordable or hard to come by in some countries, 3D printing could be a boon for construction.
3D printing and sustainable development goals
With 3D printers, marvelous things are starting to happen. No longer will there be the need for expensive shipments of items. Individuals can create whatever they need anywhere they are. There’s a positive impact on the environment with the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions caused by long-distance shipping and delivery.
3D printing also reduces the overproduction of plastic products, needs less storage space, and generates less waste than traditional manufacturing techniques. In a circular economy, plastic, food, cement and other materials which otherwise would become waste, could be made into new products. WinSun, a construction company in China, uses industrial solid waste as the “ink” that replaces cement in the production of a new type of low-carbon building.
3D printers can make tools that were previously out of bounds for people in developing countries. Bring relief to people who suffer from amputations and can’t get prosthetics due to high costs. A relatively cheap 3D printer is already being used for this purpose in countries such as Sierra Leone. The 3D printer company who started the mission found that they could do even more by creating other unavailable medical tools and by teaching the locals how to use the printer. All they needed was to send them the designs.
The future of work
Manufacturing has been declining in developed countries for years. In the 80’s, manufacturing commanded a 21% share of the overall employment in the United States. Over the past three decades, employment in manufacturing has decreased by about 40%. In Germany, from 27% in 1991 to 19% in 2007. In Japan, from 32% to 20% over the same period.
3D printing opens a new path for manufacturing cutting costs and giving opportunities to individual freelance workers. Imagine printing your products customized to fit your needs instead of buying one-size-fits-all mass-market products.
Customization and opportunities for freelance and small shop owners can revive the manufacturing sector, which will be more flexible and sustainable by fabricating on demand. Small-scale independent manufacturers can also simplify the supply chain of large manufacturing companies.
Fab Labs are open
Fabrication laboratories, known as Fab Labs, are public workshops open to anyone who wishes to learn about digital manufacturing technology and electronic tools. 3D printers are a standard piece of equipment in these spaces.
Fab Labs have a network approach that requires to share designs and processes, an open knowledge movement, which benefits the whole world. Thanks to fab labs, open-source blueprints for any fabrication are available to anyone anywhere. They are democratizing manufacturing, reaching the most isolated and deprived communities.
People from any origin or economic condition can come in and learn how to use them and be ready to start up a business in the future anywhere in the world. Access to design from any computer connected to the internet makes fabrication available from any location.
3D printing may not be available yet in mass for the consumer market, but it’s getting there. By the year 2025, we’ll see a whole new economy flourish. The potential is enormous, especially for developing countries. And in the developed world, it may represent a new hope for people who suddenly find themselves out of traditional manufacturing jobs.