Published on September 16th, 2012 | by Steven Hodson1
3D Printing And The Tsunami Of Change That Will Leave Manufacturing Bloodied
Just about all the young people living in this Internet Age; and live to see the most massive change to society in all our lifetimes, were either not born yet or too young to remember the last incredible change that the Internet brought to our society, a change that we are still trying to come to grips with.
The Napster Generation
Back in 1999 Napster was set loose on the world and the music industry has never been the same, and the same underground that helped to create the Napster generation were also responsible for changing the way that we watch movies or television. No more were we beholden to music corporations that had been feeding us nothing but crap at highly inflated prices. No more were we being forced to pay exorbitant prices in order to go and see movies that for the most part were shit. No more were we put in a position to watch out favorite television shows at a time dictated by some network and mixed in with a bunch of other crap show the cable companies made us take as a part of their “deals”.
All this has happened in the space of 13 years and isn’t slowing down regardless of the roadblocks that music companies, television networks, or movie companies try and throw down in front of this cultural roller coaster. The Internet and technology was enabling us to make a stand against what we saw as cultural corporate greed and an over abundance of crap being shoveled at us as entertainment.
Technology was enabling us to be masters of our own culture using the Internet as the global pipeline to art, music, and entertainment that we might not otherwise see or hear; but this is only one small part of our society that technology would have an effect on; and maybe the most negligible with what is to come.
The NAFTA Generation
As important as culture is to us and our society it pales in comparison to the effect that manufacturing has had on the United States, an effect that helped to propel it to its superpower status and able to exert its influence around the world. However that reliance on manufacturing began to face its own assault in 1994 with the signing of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that basically gave US based corporations free reign to move their manufacturing plants to Mexico where wages were cheaper.
Also at the same time we started seeing the rise in corporate outsourcing to countries like India, where once again the wages were cheaper and companies could further cut their bottom line. It was the combination of these two things along with general economic problems that saw the closing of an ever increasing number of manufacturing plants and driving down of people’s income levels to levels not seen before.
In this case technology didn’t play as beneficial role when it came to families and young people. Technology was in fact speeding up the decline of manufacturing as companies look to replace people with machines in as many ways as they possibly could. Factories that remained in the US were forced to streamline which meant letting employees go and replacing them with ever increasingly competent technology.
As we head into the 2012 presidential election we are hearing a rising tide of politicians calling for the restoration of the United States as a manufacturing force to be reckon with; just like in the good old days, the problem is those days will never come back.
This Isn’t Your Father’s Manufacturing
Just as technology changed our cultural and entertainment world so it will change the way that we manufacture goods but not in the way that companies currently manufacturing goods will understand or be able to deal with. The days of assembly lines and huge employee payrolls are numbered and if you thought that the blood bath experienced by entertainment companies was a game changer … well …. you ain’t seen nothing yet.
When I was growing up one of the prime jobs one could hope for was to get hired on by General Motors and work in their Oshawa plant until you retired with a huge pension and benefits. The same could be said for any kid growing up at the same time as me in any city or town that was predominately and manufacturing town, not any more, those days are gone and they aren’t going to come back.
The problem is that the companies that are still manufacturing based companies, both US and globally, are locked into that mass creation of products and aren’t prepared for the true effect that technology is going to have on their businesses. The days were people punched the time clock and performed the same repetitive are about to find themselves being supplanted by technology in ways that make this current jobless problem seem like a bump in the road.
As Andrew Keen said at a recent tech gathering held by TechPolicyInstitute.org:
… this next democratized wave of industrial revolution I think will change the way in which many products will get manufactured as more and more entrepreneurs can use these products to manufacture their own products. There’s been more and more stories about how manufacturing now, small manufacturing concerns which are supported by Kickstarter are now much more attractive to investors than software startups.
I think we might be on the cusp of perhaps a new kind of renaissance when it comes to manufacturing and the way in which the factory has been democratized by technology. On the other hand it will also lead to all the same problems that the Internet has created. The same problem of the crisis of toy manufacturers, the crisis of car manufacturers.
So the old, the manufacturing elite which dominated the American, and global economy, in the 19th and 20th century is about to be hit by the same tsunami that hit the media industry in the 1990’s and it’s going to be even bloodier, more traumatic, and also more interesting.
When The Garage Becomes The Global Headquarters
While the massive manufacturing plants may still exist for some time yet they will exist in countries other than the United States. They will exist in China, and when that gets too expensive they’ll move to countries like Vietnam or Indonesia or the newest darling of corporations Africa; but they won’t exist in the U.S.
Does that mean that manufacturing is gone forever from America?
No it doesn’t but it will be totally different from anything your father will think of as manufacturing and it will come thanks one again because of technology and its ability to forever make itself cheaper and cheaper to use. We saw this with the whole computer revolution where once a 10 GB drive had to be flown to its destination and cost more than you would pay for your house. Now we have solid state drives that can fit inside a 7″ tablet that has a hundred times of capacity and while still a little on the expensive side is coming down in price every business quarter.
Just as software like Napster and services like Netflix forever changed how we consume our entertainment the same thing is going to happen with manufacturing. Even now the average person could easily afford to own a 3d printer that when connected to even a tablet and provided the proper software and 3D data can print anything from gun parts to 3D rendering of your child still in the womb; and you can do it from your living room, or your garage.
Yes 3D printing is still in its infancy but as we have seen with all technology that when combined with the Internet anything is possible and very quickly becomes a negligible cost to produce.
Why go to a car parts store when you can download the exact 3D data file for the part and print it out yourself; or how about the classic example from Star Trek and its replicators where Captain Picard says those famous words: “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot”; well if you stop and think about it that is possible today.
Well how about the already existing beverage making machines with a 3D printer included that prints up a cup ahead of the order with you perform using voice commands much like you would with Siri. Not all that hard and could very easily be done today.
The Coming Tsunami
Manufacturing as we recognize it today is a dead business that at some point, and much sooner than the manufacturing elite – to use Keen’s wording – can even imagine will be yet another legacy business that will fade away. The more immediate problem is t hat those workers already struggling to make it by on the ever diminishing paychecks from fewer and fewer factories are going to be the ones that are going to be set adrift in numbers like we’ve never seen before.
3D printing is going to change our manufacturing world as we know it and change it forever but the question is whether or not we are prepared for that tsunami that 3D printing is going to cause and I don’t think so. I think that, sure, the corporate chiefs will survive as they always do but the companies they current run will disappear as will the desperately needed jobs which is going to lead to a type od civil unrest like the country has never seen.
It’s one thing when a small segment of our society is affected by the kind of monumental change we saw with the media companies but it is another thing altogether when the largest percentage of your workforce suddenly finds out that their jobs are being replaced by some kid with a 3D printer in their garage, and then another, and then another.
As much as I believe that 3D printing is going to change our society in ways we can’t even see yet I also dread the incredible pressure it is going to put on our society and governments, not just in the US but in the end globally.
It ain’t gonna be pretty folks but it is going to happen.