The talk among the media about 3D printing is that it will usher in a third industrial revolution, but it is more likely to bring about a consumer revolution.
Historians and economists speak about revolutions as a way to describe shifts in the structure of the economy. There’s the agrarian revolution, the commercial revolution, the first and second industrial revolutions and the credit revolution, to name a few. Consumers, in all these revolutions, have fallen behind the curve and have reminded as passive actors, rather than economic drivers.
Businesses and entrepreneurial men, so far, have driven every revolution. But the technology, despite being around for three decades, is in an early enough stage and economically viable for consumers to latch onto this emerging technology and spur on a consumer revolution.
This revolution would see consumers harnessing the productive capabilities of 3D printers to create and “print” things which they desire immediately. Market places would spring up selling designs for these products and consumers could sell their wares to other consumers. All driven by what existing consumers like and the shared interest with other consumers. It would also help the cottage industries, which reside on websites such as Etsy, to expand their creative and productive capabilities.
However, the likelihood that this will happen is slim as consumers aren’t necessarily as savvy as one would like them to be. The likely route that 3D printing will take us down is for retailers to install them and use them on demand so that they reduce the costs associated with unwanted stock. The customisation and personalisation of products, such as shoes, will revolutionise the fashion industry. Have a basic template and everyone can be a designer tailored specifically to their own individual tastes and preferences.
In the wider manufacturing industry 3D printers are already used in the prototyping phase to speed the process up, but there is a possibility to use 3D printers to build component parts. For large manufacturers this gives a considerable advantage over smaller manufacturers, who typically provide those component parts. It could possibly mean the end of traditional manufacturing in the western world as the skills of factory workers are replaced by those of CAD operators.
It could have a negative impact on the labour market as the workers made redundant by this technology might be unable to retrain. But for the wider, service based economy this technology will mean more leisure time as there will be a reduced incentive to queue in shops.
In conclusion 3D printing will produce a large upheaval in the economy. If utilised correctly it could usher in a consumer revolution. Otherwise, it will could usher in a more leisurely based society.