Is 3D printing really set to change the world? The ‘Sunday Times’ seems to think so, and this weekend told us how – thanks to this technology – manufacturing is set to return to the US and the UK from China. But what about jobs? Will 3D printing make us richer, or poorer?

Jean-Luc Picard. If you are like the author and just a tad sad, you will know who he is. And if you’re even sadder, just like the author, you will now understand what: “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot,” means. If you don’t here is an education in one sentence. The Captain of the USS Enterprise in ‘Star Trek – The Next Generation’ used to get his favourite tea from machines called replicators, which fashioned his drink from the raw elements that made them up.
A lot of things happened in ‘Star Trek’: doors that opened as you approached them before they existed for real, communication devices that flicked open, and a kind of 3D printer that could make hot Earl Grey tea.

Now NASA has funded research to try to produce a 3D Printer that that can rustle up a pizza from powders and a combination of atoms that follow the formulae H20.

The thing about 3D printing is that the technology is developing fast. Maplins is now selling a device in its High Street stores. It can be used, amongst other things, for replacing lost chess pieces and making mobile phone cases. The cynics say “Whoo hoo.” Maybe they would have said something similar when Orville and Wilbur Wright managed to fly a heavier than air machine 120 feet.

All new technologies start off looking a little unnecessary. Just remember that these days new technology tends to gain market traction a lot faster than it used to.

But will it make money for us, or make us poorer, as it destroys jobs, sucking demand out of the economy?

Maybe it will suck jobs out of the economy for a while.

But what 3D printing will do is enable more products catering for the so called long tail. Local craftsman, armed with the 3D printer, and skills in computer design will be able to knock off bespoke products for you very quickly.

It will be like the olden days but with one difference. Mass production created cheap goods. That is why we lost tailor made products, and manufacturing went from the local craftsman to huge factories.

3D printing will – to a very large extent – remove the advantage of economies of scale from mass production.

Then there are clothes. The clothes retailers of the future – say 2025 – might employ sales assistants who are a dab hand with the 3D printer, and know enough about fashion or ideas, or indeed style to help you get your design right. So you might say I want that item of clothing, with that frilly bit, in that size, in that colour and with that pattern down the back. The sales assistant might say, “how about that pattern down the front?”, and you pop back half an hour later for your new dress, jumper, or jacket or whatever. Retailers that win out might be the ones that employ less luddites on the board.

Or is all this a bit daft? How to finish this piece? “Beam me up Scotty.”


© Investment & Business News 2013