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Social Impact of 3D Printing

Here is a simple, yet very meaningful, definition for 3D-printing from 3D Hubs:

"3D Printing is an additive manufacturing process that creates a physical object from a digital design."

There are currently two distinct faces to the development of 3D printing technology. First, there is the industrial development as early as the 1980s. Then there is more recent, but much more celebrated, work of "makers" or do-it-yourself developers. This pattern is remarkably similar to the development of microprocessors and desktop computers.

Rather than complicate this page with both paths of development for 3D printing, I will show relevant resources for the industrial developments and perspectives on this page. You will find the high profile, DIY stuff on a separate Maker page.

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Social Impact of 3D Printing

Since the 1950s, a number of writers and social commentators have speculated in some depth about the social and cultural changes that might result from the advent of commercially affordable additive manufacturing technology. Amongst the more notable ideas to have emerged from these inquiries has been the suggestion that, as more and more 3D printers start to enter people's homes, the conventional relationship between the home and the workplace might get further eroded. Likewise, it has also been suggested that, as it becomes easier for businesses to transmit designs for new objects around the globe, so the need for high-speed freight services might also become less. Finally, given the ease with which certain objects can now be replicated, it remains to be seen whether changes will be made to current copyright legislation so as to protect intellectual property rights with the new technology widely available.

As 3D printers became more accessible to consumers, online social platforms have developed to support the community. This includes websites that allow users to access information such as how to build a 3D printer, as well as social forums that discuss how to improve 3D print quality and discuss 3D printing news, as well as social media websites that are dedicated to share 3D models. RepRap is a wiki based website that was created to hold all information on 3d printing, and has developed into a community that aims to bring 3D printing to everyone. Furthermore, there are other sites such as PinshapeThingiverse and MyMiniFactory, which were created initially to allow users to post 3D files for anyone to print, allowing for decreased transaction cost of sharing 3D files. These websites have allowed greater social interaction between users, creating communities dedicated to 3D printing.

Some call attention to the conjunction of Commons-based peer production with 3D printing and other low-cost manufacturing techniques. The self-reinforced fantasy of a system of eternal growth can be overcome with the development of economies of scope, and here, society can play an important role contributing to the raising of the whole productive structure to a higher plateau of more sustainable and customized productivity. Further, it is true that many issues, problems, and threats arise due to the democratization of the means of production, and especially regarding the physical ones. For instance, the recyclability of advanced nanomaterials is still questioned; weapons manufacturing could become easier; not to mention the implications for counterfeiting and on IP. It might be maintained that in contrast to the industrial paradigm whose competitive dynamics were about economies of scale, Commons-based peer production 3D printing could develop economies of scope. While the advantages of scale rest on cheap global transportation, the economies of scope share infrastructure costs (intangible and tangible productive resources), taking advantage of the capabilities of the fabrication tools. And following Neil Gershenfeld in that "some of the least developed parts of the world need some of the most advanced technologies," Commons-based peer production and 3D printing may offer the necessary tools for thinking globally but acting locally in response to certain needs.

Larry Summers wrote about the "devastating consequences" of 3D printing and other technologies (robots, artificial intelligence, etc.) for those who perform routine tasks. In his view, "already there are more American men on disability insurance than doing production work in manufacturing. And the trends are all in the wrong direction, particularly for the less skilled, as the capacity of capital embodying artificial intelligence to replace white-collar as well as blue-collar work will increase rapidly in the years ahead." Summers recommends more vigorous cooperative efforts to address the "myriad devices" (e.g., tax havens, bank secrecy, money laundering, and regulatory arbitrage) enabling the holders of great wealth to "avoid paying" income and estate taxes, and to make it more difficult to accumulate great fortunes without requiring "great social contributions" in return, including: more vigorous enforcement of anti-monopoly laws, reductions in "excessive" protection for intellectual property, greater encouragement of profit-sharing schemes that may benefit workers and give them a stake in wealth accumulation, strengthening of collective bargaining arrangements, improvements in corporate governance, strengthening of financial regulation to eliminate subsidies to financial activity, easing of land-use restrictions that may cause the real estate of the rich to keep rising in value, better training for young people and retraining for displaced workers, and increased public and private investment in infrastructure development—e.g., in energy production and transportation.

Michael Spence wrote that "Now comes a … powerful, wave of digital technology that is replacing labor in increasingly complex tasks. This process of labor substitution and disintermediation has been underway for some time in service sectors—think of ATMs, online banking, enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, mobile payment systems, and much more. This revolution is spreading to the production of goods, where robots and 3D printing are displacing labor." In his view, the vast majority of the cost of digital technologies comes at the start, in the design of hardware (e.g. 3D printers) and, more important, in creating the software that enables machines to carry out various tasks. "Once this is achieved, the marginal cost of the hardware is relatively low (and declines as scale rises), and the marginal cost of replicating the software is essentially zero. With a huge potential global market to amortize the upfront fixed costs of design and testing, the incentives to invest in digital technologies are compelling." Spence believes that, unlike prior digital technologies, which drove firms to deploy underutilized pools of valuable labor around the world, the motivating force in the current wave of digital technologies "is cost reduction via the replacement of labor." For example, as the cost of 3D printing technology declines, it is "easy to imagine" that production may become "extremely" local and customized. Moreover, production may occur in response to actual demand, not anticipated or forecast demand. Spence believes that labor, no matter how inexpensive, will become a less important asset for growth and employment expansion, with labor-intensive, process-oriented manufacturing becoming less effective, and that re-localization will appear in both developed and developing countries. In his view, production will not disappear, but it will be less labor-intensive, and all countries will eventually need to rebuild their growth models around digital technologies and the human capital supporting their deployment and expansion. Spence writes that "the world we are entering is one in which the most powerful global flows will be ideas and digital capital, not goods, services, and traditional capital. Adapting to this will require shifts in mindsets, policies, investments (especially in human capital), and quite possibly models of employment and distribution."

Forbes investment pundits have predicted that 3D printing may lead to a resurgence of American Manufacturing, citing the small, creative companies that comprise the current industry landscape, and the lack of the necessary complex infrastructure in typical outsource markets.

This work is an adaptation of a Wikipedia entry under the terms of Creative Commons 4.0
This adaptation is available under the same terms.













David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 06, 2015