The Luddites were sometimes right. Technology might be a good thing in the long run, but in the short run there are casualties. Actually, there are always casualties, but it’s possible that innovation has sometimes created economic depression before it created something special. It may be like that today, and 3D printing is a prime example.

Consider the age of symmetry. It lasted from around 1867 to 1914, and was perhaps the golden age of innovation. In fact, if you look at the history of innovation from learning how to tame animals to the Internet, it is possible that more innovation occurred in that half a century or so than throughout the rest of history put together. Yet 13 years later, the US entered the Great Depression, and the global economy limped forward into world war. It may have been a coincidence of course, but then again, does it not kind of make sense that innovation can create economic hardship?

Innovation can increase productive potential, but without a corresponding rise in demand the result of innovation may be fewer jobs. Fewer jobs mean less demand and things can become worse.

This does not mean innovation is bad and always destroys jobs; it just means that it can, under certain circumstances, particularly if the government does not try to counteract the negative impacts of innovation with stimulus.
Maybe this has been happening of late. It does feel as though modern technology has left two types of jobs: the highly paid skilled jobs, and the manual jobs, such as cleaning. There is little in the middle.

And that brings us to the next wave of innovation: nanotechnology to the internet of things, might not these changes cut though the economy like a sickle though grass?

Take 3D printing: it’s hard to see how this can do anything but destroy jobs.
It is hard to see this, but not impossible.

3D printing may provide the opportunity for local craftsman, experts in CAD, design, and materials to provide bespoke products for the customer, at a price that puts such products in reach of the mass market.

A similar point was made here the other day. See 3D printing: game changer or just fair game for the cynics? 

It was good to see others drawing similar conclusions. Kevin O'Marah of SCM World recenlty wrote “Store-based retail is getting killed by Amazon-addicted consumers whose loyalty is paper thin. Suppose, however, that stores did more than just carry product. Additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing) has the potential to custom-make many consumer products given progress in the materials sciences that will go from simple resins to metals, ceramics, fabrics and more. Add some well-trained staff and the store could be a place where consumers come to solve problems and experiment with ideas. Imagine the retailer REI deploying these ideas for its ultra-loyal outdoorsy customer base – it’s not hard to see how this beats Amazon.” See Futureworld: 3D printing is the tip of the iceberg 

Maybe 3D printing won’t just have one effect, but will have different effects at different times, and in different sectors. It may lead to job losses and a recession for a while and in some regions, but it may also ultimately create a huge number of skilled and well-paid jobs, creating more wealth for most of us.

© Investment & Business News 2013