Another industrial revolution?

Yesterday, I posted about a potential revival in American exports, made possible in part by better manufacturing technology. Walter Russell Mead showed how technology could return manufacturing jobs to America, linking to an article from The Economist by Paul Markillie that looks at 3D printers:

Instead of bashing, bending and cutting material the way it always has been, 3D printers build things by depositing material, layer by layer. That is why the process is more properly described as additive manufacturing. An American firm, 3D Systems, used one of its 3D printers to print a hammer for your correspondent, complete with a natty wood-effect handle and a metallised head….

Everything in the factories of the future will be run by smarter software. Digitisation in manufacturing will have a disruptive effect every bit as big as in other industries that have gone digital, such as office equipment, telecoms, photography, music, publishing and films. And the effects will not be confined to large manufacturers; indeed, they will need to watch out because much of what is coming will empower small and medium-sized firms and individual entrepreneurs. Launching novel products will become easier and cheaper. Communities offering 3D printing and other production services that are a bit like Facebook are already forming online—a new phenomenon which might be called social manufacturing.

The article calls this the “third industrial revolution.”

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3 comments

  1. Cheap 3D printing is very exciting. The question is how soon the economics and material usability will be solved. e.g. I’d love to be able to duplicate a screw or faucet cap or a car door handle (even better, from design specs) if the material can handle the stresses.

    Markillie also mentioned Volkswagen’s plans for modularity which will be another significant shift. Imagine not only standardization within a company but between companies, which will increase competition across the board. Moreover, I suspect that capable 3D printing will oddly make standardization more attractive even as it makes standardization less relevant. You can’t lock people into your parts or push them to buy a whole new unit when they can just print their own parts to repair their old unit… unless you make it illegal.

    So, all of this will also cause a big push to enhance and enforce patents and copyrights because the designs will be valuable and very easily copied. That is a big part of why I don’t think the momentum of the US’s technological advantage will last long — unless the whole IP system is heavily revised and rededicated to the purpose of optimizing Progress of the Useful Arts and Sciences. Given the current stranglehold on IP and the state of government, I’m pessimistic.

    What is phenomenal about this 3rd Industrial Revolution is that it is fundamentally decentralizing, which is, in a sense, opposite the first 2 revolutions. It redefines what a “manufacturing job” is. I think it will eventually be a huge win for individual liberty.

  2. It’s cool that you’ve thought about this already; it was all a surprise to me. I think that I agree with you on both the IP implications and individual liberty. In a way, it’s restoring the independence of the craftsman that the industrial revolutions undermined. Interesting that it could be restored to some degree through the progress of industry.

  3. Yeah, and it’s only through repeated cycles of diminishing old, less valuable jobs and learning to do more valuable new jobs that we could come full circle like this.

    While I’ve been aware of 3D printing for a while and mused over some consequences, I’ve never put it in the context of being a 3rd Industrial Revolution or formalized my thoughts until your post. So this was helpful for me. Thanks, Scott! 🙂

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