Will 3D printing save American manufacturing?

Will 3D printing save American manufacturing?
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James Fallows published a piece in The Atlantic about the “maker movement”. The maker movement is the push to manufacture things in the US again, except on a small scale. 3D printers are probably the best known example, though Fallows dives more deeply.

It’s not surprising to find this manufacturing discussion near the time of a US election. It’s a common political theme, the push to restore America’s manufacturing prowess. It quickly takes on a religious feel.

Fallows does a good job mitigating the clamor for past manufacturing glory. Like with agriculture, manufacturing productivity continues to improve in the US. Like with agriculture, what doesn’t continue to increase is the labor intensity. We can generate more goods with fewer people. It’s the march of progress.

Now, we certainly need compassion for American workers displaced by the evolution of technology. We need to find ways to engage them in our economy, even if the market doesn’t value their skills as it once did. That’s the epicenter of the necessary political conversation.

With all that in mind, Fallows does a great job of describing the specialization of the US, and by extension the world, economy. Large scale, low cognitive input manufacturing jobs have gone oversees, mainly to China. The “maker movement” shows that a particular kind of manufacturing may still be a great fit for the US.

I’ve written in the past about how product design jobs continue to live in the US, while we have farmed out product manufacturing jobs. That’s exactly what you’d expect to happen, given how economic infrastructure varies around the world. The US is well-positioned to retain the high cognitive load tasks that the market highly values.

The “maker movement” is a natural companion to the high-profile design jobs. Prototyping and experimenting are integral parts of the broader design process. It makes sense to iron out all the manufacturing wrinkles during the greater design effort, then stand up the final manufacturing process overseas.

I titled this post “Will 3D printing save American manufacturing?” I chose that title for a reason. I think “saving manufacturing” is putting the cart before the horse. Rather than focusing on saving a particular type of job, we should focus on generating worthy investment opportunities. Because we have so few worthy investment opportunities, we see low and negative interest rates around the world.

If we find enough attractive US-based economic investments, we’ll “save” manufacturing in one sense or another. We can’t build a whole economy on information. Silicon Valley has worked incredible wonders. But it’s only part of a fully-functioning economy.

As Fallows describes, we need places like Boeing, and GE, and United Technologies. We need to continue to make real things, whether they’re rolling off a large-scale manufacturing line or emerging from a boutique lab environment. We spend our lives interacting with things. Some large fraction of the US economy will always interface with the making of these things.

We keep hearing talk about a “tech bubble”. One way to think about a tech bubble is as an over-purchased asset class. In other words, so many people think that tech companies are attractive investments that these companies are valued much more than they’re actually worth. In this sense, a tech bubble is a sink for financial capital.

Another way to think about a tech bubble is as a sink for intellectual capital. Silicon Valley-driven innovation is splashed over the front pages of publications. Silicon Valley celebrities are lionized. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where excess talent drifts in that direction, hoping to reap those rewards. Meanwhile, less sexy sectors of the economy are relatively ignored.

I understand the appeal of Silicon Valley. Anyone with enough smarts, and enough ambition, can jump on a laptop and build a company. The barriers to entry are tiny.

One outcome of the “maker movement” is that a similar thing is happening for manufacturing. The startup capital is small. You don’t need to buy a bunch of real estate and scale up a formal manufacturing line. A single 3D printer, and you’re on your way.

As scientists and engineers, we need to keep these trends in mind. At the end of the day, our economy will thrive when we collectively supply ample opportunity for investment. Yes, large scale manufacturing efforts have moved overseas. Still, the US remains in the business of making things. It’s not just an information age. Real stuff still matters.

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