3D printing offers exciting opportunities

The loss of manufacturing jobs from the United States to developing countries around the world has often been cited as a marker of America’s decline as a global power in the twenty-first century. According to the Economist, less than ten percent of Americans currently work in the manufacturing sector, down from over 53% in 1965. Looking ahead, the National Labor Relations Board predicts that the US will loose its status as the world’s top manufacturer to China in the next five years.

This bleak outlook for American manufacturing has led to frantic attempts by politicians to support protectionist laws in order to keep labor-intensive jobs at home. While this approach has been met with limited success, it is a reactionary solution that will not serve the US well going forward. The future of manufacturing is one that will become increasingly automated.

Instead of focusing on bringing manufacturing jobs back to America, politicians should focus on creating a highly-educated population capable of using science and engineering to create new ideas and products — not one in which humans are involved in mass production.

One such technology holds tremendous potential in helping achieve that goal: 3D printing. According to the Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley research group and think tank, this technology holds the potential to fundamentally change society’s approach to manufacturing since the start of the Industrial Revolution. 3D printing holds tremendous implications for the invention process and can reduce the time from ideation to prototype significantly. Imagine if you could dream up an idea and print the parts needed to make it a reality using a CAD model within the span of just a few days. There would be no wait time for receiving parts, and the cost would significantly reduced.

There are three projects currently underway that demonstrate the vast breadth and potential that 3D printing holds. The first and most widely known is called Rep-Rap, which is an open source project that can print plastic parts that can be held on the palm of your hand.  As an open source project, hobbyists can download and make one for less than $600. It even has the ability to print most of the parts needed to create a copy of itself.

Another project currently underway is called digital chocolatier, which was created by Marcelo Coelho who works for the MIT Media Lab. This printer uses four nozzles to deposit chocolate ingredients into a thermoelectric cup, which can rapidly cool and harden the candy. The benefits to using this printer is that the user can make exactly what he/she wants, and the nutritional information can be generated on the spot. Coelho is currently working on expanding this technology beyond chocolates to all foods. Instead of cooking, imagine being able to print your meal for the day.

Lastly, the technology is in place for scientists and doctors to use a patient’s own tissue to reprint and regenerate human organs. In a now renowned TED-talk, Dr. Anthony Atala from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine printed a kidney on stage. Atala has developed a process by which a 3D image of an organ that needs to be replaced is created, which is then used by the printer to seed a tissue sample and replicate it layer by layer to create a new organ. Because the organ is built using the patient’s tissue, there is little risk of organ rejection from the patient’s body.  This has profound implications for biotechnology and medicine. Organ waiting lists would become a thing of the past and wounded soldiers can have organs repaired on the battlefield.

3D printing is in its nascent stage, and a dedicated community of hobbyists and entrepreneurs drives current development. Most projects are open source, and the first start-ups are beginning to take root. MakerBot, a New Jersey based firm recently released its Thing-o-Matic, a well-packaged machine directed at inventors and small businesses.

The climate within the field is reminiscent of the early days of the computer industry in Silicon Valley. With time, it could grow into a promising technology that revolutionizes the process of invention.

Attempting to bring back manufacturing jobs to America is a misguided approach to the future. Time and effort would be better spent focusing on educating the general population in science, technology and mathematics, which would better prepare citizens to contribute to the twenty-first century economy.