By John Richardson

3D printing will very probably force manufacturers, including those who make chemicals and polymers, to build entirely new business models.

Here is why:

  • The young in Western societies will be poorer because of less aggregate demand as a result of the retirement of the Babyboomers. They will need to save a lot of money.
  • And the old – who, even in less-straitened times would have spent less money because of how spending patterns as you age – will also be increasingly forced to focus on value for money because of the big hole in Western pension funds.
  • Thus, 3D printing, as this fascinating article from the Chatham House magazine points, offers a marvellous opportunity for people to both save money and build a stronger sense of community.
  • Skills will be shared – e.g. the younger woman who is more computer-design savvy could end up cooperating with the retiree who draws on the skills  he developed while working for the design department of a conventional manufacturer.
  • And so, instead of always buying stuff from mass manufacturers, small communities of people might gather together to produce everything from their own drugs to their own replacement auto parts for the 20-year-old shared Volvo that, previously, would have been consigned to the scrap yard. “Built to last” rather than “built to impress the neighbours” will become the priority for the vast majority of people on squeezed incomes.
  • And when people do buy stuff from shops, it will similarly have to be cheap and made to last.
  • People might also look at where “shop bought” products are made. Buying local in order to support local jobs could become another priority. In addition, how it has been made might be linked to where it has been made. No longer may Westerners, more concerned about sustainability as well as their local communities, be as willing to buy goods made in developing-world sweat shops, where components have been shipped in from many different parts of the world at a heavy cost to the environment in terms of CO2 emissions. “Quality” over “quantity” of life could result in people thinking harder about the impact of their economic actions on others.
  • Because the 3D printing process involves additive rather than subtractive manufacturing, locally-made products will both be built to last and built from less raw materials.  “The formal label given to this craft [3D printing] is additive manufacturing – the object is built up layer by layer in a 3D printer. The traditional approach to manufacturing is subtractive and relies on milling, grinding and cutting to remove material, wasting much of it in the process,” writes Roger Highfield, author of the Chatham House article, who is external affairs director for the British Science Museum.

How quickly might this all happen?

“There was a lag of many years between the first feverish headlines about the personal computer revolution and the arrival of truly useful domestic computers,” continues the author.

“The same went for the internet, which was billed as transformative in the primitive dial-up era of the 1990s and is only now delivering that promise thanks to broadband, tablets and 4G.

“As for the 3D revolution, I am confident that the technology will spread beyond industry and geeks in the 2020s to change the way we do things, and in more fascinating ways than we can possibly imagine.”

We hope that it happens quicker than this as the alternative of more community is greater chaos as society struggles under the burden of demographics.

More community would mean a greater of sense of collective and individual self-worth, as Westerners will no longer be able to define themselves as much by what they earn. 3D printing will also, as we’ve said, help people save some of the money that they need to save.

We don’t like to think too hard too much of the time about the alternative of greater chaos.

What is the new model that manufacturers will need to build? We will provide some initial ideas on Monday.


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