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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Revolution In The Making

The leader in this week's The Economist describes a revolution in the way that things are made that has the potential to change production processes in incredible ways. Read the story and then read it again. Then spend some time thinking about how this process could change your life.

The jobless technology

A technological change so profound will reset the economics of manufacturing. Some believe it will decentralise the business completely, reversing the urbanisation that accompanies industrialisation. There will be no need for factories, goes the logic, when every village has a fabricator that can produce items when needed. Up to a point, perhaps. But the economic and social benefits of cities (see article) go far beyond their ability to attract workers to man assembly lines.

Others maintain that, by reducing the need for factory workers, 3D printing will undermine the advantage of low-cost, low-wage countries and thus repatriate manufacturing capacity to the rich world. It might; but Asian manufacturers are just as well placed as anyone else to adopt the technology. And even if 3D printing does bring manufacturing back to developed countries, it may not create many jobs, since it is less labour-intensive than standard manufacturing.

Our TQ article explains the technology behind the 3-D printing process

The technology will have implications not just for the distribution of capital and jobs, but also for intellectual-property (IP) rules. When objects can be described in a digital file, they become much easier to copy and distribute—and, of course, to pirate. Just ask the music industry. When the blueprints for a new toy, or a designer shoe, escape onto the internet, the chances that the owner of the IP will lose out are greater.

There are sure to be calls for restrictions on the use of 3D printers, and lawsuits about how existing IP laws should be applied. As with open-source software, new non-commercial models will emerge. It is unclear whether 3D printing requires existing rules to be tightened (which could hamper innovation) or loosened (which could encourage piracy). The lawyers are, no doubt, rubbing their hands.

Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches. Companies, regulators and entrepreneurs should start thinking about it now. One thing, at least, seems clear: although 3D printing will create winners and losers in the short term, in the long run it will expand the realm of industry—and imagination.

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