For a sci-fi addict like me, 3-D printing reminds me of my favorite TV show, “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” It is not yet, and probably never will be, a replicator; and I expect that the price of small 3-D printers that are widely useable will keep them out of most people’s homes for the foreseeable future. But having large-scale 3-D printing revolutionize manufacturing may be soon upon us; and this prospect may well have important economic effects.
We as consumers will benefit from 3-D printing, not because we’ll have little printers at home, but because companies will have large printers that will help lower the price of the goods we buy.
How will the rise of 3-D printing in manufacturing affect the American economy and how will we fare as consumers and workers? Productivity in manufacturing has grown more rapidly than in other sectors of the economy for many years, 117 percent since 1990 compared to 64 percent for business as a whole.
Three-dimensional printing will spur further productivity growth, especially in those industries that turn out many replications of the same part for assembly into complete products (automobiles, airplanes, electrical equipment, etc.). As has been true in the past, the increased productivity will lower the cost of production, which will be passed on to buyers in the form of lower prices. In the end, we as consumers will benefit from 3-D printing, not because we’ll have little printers at home, but because companies will have large printers that help lower the price of the goods we buy. We’ll be able to buy more for less.
Increased productivity often means reduced demand for workers, especially low-skilled workers. Three-dimensional printing will likely result in the continued relative shrinking of manufacturing employment (from about one-sixth of employment in 1990 to about one-tenth today based on my calculations of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) but these need not be job losses as the change will occur mostly through workers retiring. Don’t worry: The increased purchasing power generated by the greater abundance of inexpensive goods will lead to expansions in employment in other industries, just like technology has improved our lives.