Opinion: 3D printing is technical revolution

July 9, 2013


Last week, I saw for the first time a desktop 3D printer, the machine that President Barack Obama recently said will “revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” and that experts say could change the world as much as the steam engine did in the 19th century, or the Internet at the end of the 20th century.

A Miami distributor showed me the new technology — actually, it was invented nearly three decades ago, but it has only taken off now — and explained to me how it works.

His machine was not bigger than a desktop computer, and looked like a cross between a home sewing machine and a dentists’ drill. I can’t say it left me flabbergasted, but I felt like I was looking at a slow-moving and rudimentary version of a machine that will soon be as essential as computers, or smart phones.

Many economists agree that 3D printers will bring about a new industrial revolution, and will change the world economy. The new machines can produce almost any object, much like your current 2D printer prints a text on paper.

You call up a design of a product on your computer screen, type the measurements and colors you want, press “enter” on your computer keyboard and — bingo — the printer starts making that product. The machine’s moving needle begins injecting plastic, or whatever other material, into a small surface, and starts building the product, one layer at a time.

Abraham Reichental, the CEO of 3D Systems, one of the world’s largest companies of 3D printers, told me in an interview that these machines are already being used extensively in the aerospace industry to make aircraft parts, and by physicians to make patient-specific knee or hip implants, or hearing devices.

Also, 3D printers can already make shoes, fashion accessories, toys and several other consumer goods, he said.

“This is only the beginning,” Reichental told me. Over the next 12 months, we will see 3D printers producing chocolates, and all kinds of foods with custom-made nutritional values. NASA has already commissioned a 3D printer that will be able to make pizzas in space.

As 3D printers become cheaper, and as it becomes easier to download complex designs onto your computer screen, you will see more sophisticated components and machines being 3D printed, he said.

“The same technology that today is only accessible to deep-pocketed corporations is all of a sudden accessible to anybody via the cloud,” Reichental said. “That is leveling the playing field, and allowing the relocalization of manufacturing, as opposed to making things in far-away countries.”

In other words, consumers across the world will be able to use 3D printers to produce goods at home, or a printing shop near home, and there will be less of a need to import goods from China or Mexico.

According to Reichental, neither China nor Mexico’s economies will suffer devastating blows, because the changes in industrial manufacturing will not be sudden, nor absolute. But many economists believe that some countries will win, and others will lose.

Vivek Wadhwa, a Singularity University and Duke University professor and one of the leading U.S. innovation gurus, told me in a separate interview that the global shift toward more individualized and domestic production with 3D printers “will create havoc in China.”

As for Latin America, Wadhwa says that the move toward 3D printing will benefit importing countries, and hurt exporting ones. But the 3D printing revolution will take place alongside an increased use of robotics in manufacturing, and some manufacturing countries like Mexico will have a big opportunity by teaming up with robotics-intensive U.S. companies thanks to their proximity to the U.S. market, he said.

My opinion: Most of the world hasn’t even heard about it, but 3D printing will indeed bring about a new industrial revolution that will have a huge impact on which countries will prosper, and which won’t.

We are moving deeper into the knowledge economy. In the not so distant future, countries will not export goods, but designs of goods, which other countries will import via the Internet and produce locally with 3D printers.

The countries with good universities and schools that teach entrepreneurship will be able to export their designs via the Internet, and collect royalties. And countries with bad education systems will have to either pirate these designs — and risk becoming pariah states — or pay big royalties for their virtual imports. Quality education will be, as it is now, the name of the game.

— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald.


usesomesense 4 years, 11 months ago

This is pretty sensationalized and flawed article. The notion that 3D printers will cost effectively replace mass production environments is extremely naive. Additionally having them in our homes is not likely at least in this century. While 3D printers or modeling extruders are fantastic for prototyping and producing things like replacement parts, the outputted items will never be unit cost competitive with mass produced items. They are also very limited in types of materials they can produce.
The idea of using them for food production, while highly interesting isn't likely to produce items the general public will find particularly palatable for years to come to say the least, but it's nice that astronauts can have a $300,000 pizza.
However; if developed properly, food printing technology may be a semi-reasonable solution to world hunger - processing things like soy, seaweed and algae extracts into facsimiles of other foods (kind of like in Star Trek - except I believe they were using transporter technology to 'clone' food more or less which is a bit further out of reach)

Liberty275 4 years, 11 months ago

Just don't eat the green stuff. It's made of people.

As for 3d printers, how much would that computer you use to read the LJW cost back in 1975? Millions and millions. China will have a cheap version of a 3d printer out within a decade and it will probably be financed by the Japanese so they can make personalized Hello Kitty paraphernalia. Desu.

gr 4 years, 11 months ago

Why is it called a 3D printer? There's no "printing" to it. Why isn't it called a 3D modeler or a 3D object maker? In fact, why is it called 3D anything? Why isn't it called an extruder or modeler or prototyper?

I'm guessing "3D" sounds nifty and "printer" sounds affordable.

jayhawklawrence 4 years, 11 months ago

I have been following 3-D printing stories with great interest because my background is in manufacturing. I came across my first 3D printing shop back in Chicago in 1988 and it was using Stereo Lithography and experimenting with metal coatings at the time. I recall that the software alone was over $250K. Parts were going to auto OEMs.

I attended the Maker Faire and it reminded me of a flea market from the Middle Ages with a lot of people walking around in costumes that might have come from the set of a Hobbit movie. But, hey, it was fun. It was something for kids to get interested in manufacturing and maybe a tad bit more. Not a professional show by any means. That would be something like IMTS in Chicago every other year.

Now we are looking at printers that can print over 100 different kinds of materials including STEM cells. I think you have to keep an OPEN MIND.

It is true that most of the articles are over-hyped and even annoying but that does not mean that game changing industries and technologies may not be emerging from this.

So far, the best information I have seen in news form is in the Wall Street Journal. Tuesday, June 11, 2013. There are many companies that are using this technology a great deal. One of them is Garmin in Olathe, KS. MIT is very serious about this.

We need to invest more to develop advanced manufacturing or risk watching some other country kick sand in our face.

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