Obama May Love It, but 3D Printing isn’t the Fix-All

I’m a big fan of 3D printing. The technology is just plain cool, and its promise is far-reaching. But its impact on U.S. manufacturing over the long haul, both in terms of job creation and innovation, are not clear.

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last Tuesday focused heavily on growing manufacturing in the United States.

“Our first priority is making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing,” the president said.

Mr. Obama highlighted re-shoring efforts by Ford, Caterpillar, Intel, and Apple as a catalyst for much-needed job growth in the manufacturing sector. He went on to say that 3D printing technology could accelerate that trend.

The president spotlighted the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), which was founded in August of last year in Youngstown, Ohio. The institute is a pilot program aimed at transitioning 3D printing to the mainstream in order to increase domestic manufacturing competitiveness.

“A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” he said in his Tuesday address.

The NAMII—recently listed in the top 10 of the country’s most innovative economic development initiatives by the Brookings Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation—is a $70 million project bringing together nine research universities, five community colleges, 40 companies, and 11 nonprofit organizations in the Cleveland-Youngstown-Pittsburgh Tech Belt.

Although in its infancy, it’s hoped that the new additive technologies and skills born from the Youngstown institute will help the region compete in a high-tech global arena.

The NAMII and the promise of similar “manufacturing hubs” has garnered the attention of the nation, but I’m not yet convinced that this will be the catalyst for significant and permanent job creation, competitiveness or innovation.

3D printing technology itself is innovative, even captivating, but the products born of it are nothing special, at least not yet. 3D printing allows us to duplicate things cheaply, but can we call this true innovation? Can these technologies help to generate new ideas and concepts that will move our world forward?

And right now 3D printing is pretty rudimentary. It produces simple models using simple components, providing a less labor intensive, less expensive way to produce metal and plastic parts.

Regardless of how additive technologies will impact U.S. manufacturing, its certain that they will impact manufacturing in some way. The Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report issued in November by the National Intelligence Council predicts that additive manufacturing will by 2030 advance beyond its current functions of creating models and rapid prototyping in the automotive and aerospace industries to transform how some conventional mass-produced products are fabricated.

My hope is that as 3D printers become more affordable and more widely available, smaller entrepreneurial businesses will begin to adopt the technology, to share ideas and do incredible things. Case in point, the custom-made Robohand printed on a Makerbot for five-year-old South African Liam earlier this month. For me, this is where the true promise of 3D printing lies.

Is additive manufacturing creating jobs and opening the door to fresh innovation? Are you using 3D printing in your own business? If so, tell us about it.

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4 thoughts on “Obama May Love It, but 3D Printing isn’t the Fix-All”

  1. Michael says:

    Perhaps the President was trying to suggest in a non-engineer’s way that 3D technologies were expanding – or rather escaping – the engineering design domain. 3D has begun to serve people outside manufacturing by re-purposing information as visual and intuitive experiences. 3D printing is cool but my bet is the new lightweight 3D formats with deep access to any product or project will soon bring bring the technology to the masses.

    1. Nancy Pardo says:

      Hi Michael:

      I think you make some great points. 3D technologies are indeed something to be watched closely. Exciting stuff!

  2. John says:

    Nancy Pardo , obviously you don’t know what are you talking about if you think more 3D printing means less jobs !! or less innovation !!
    how about writing for Cat fancy Magazine ?

    1. Nancy Pardo says:

      Hi John,

      I’m not that fond of cats, but thanks for the suggestion. I would be interested in your thoughts on how 3D printing can and is creating jobs/innovation in the manufacturing sector though.

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