The Self-Manufacturing Revolution

I t’s widely recognized that America has lost its manufacturing edge. According to some, it was superiority in this area that made the United States an economic giant. We would argue that this places the cart before the horse. The real horse of economic progress was the economic freedom that the U.S. once enjoyed, especially when compared with the rest of the world. Nevertheless, cheaper labor costs have had a lot to do with the migration of manufacturing dominance to China and the partial freeing of certain regions.

This is about to change because, for starters, China has an aging workforce and a desire to move up the value-added chain. Consequently, the economics of global manufacturing is shifting again with coastal factories (in the freer economic zones) experiencing rising salaries and increased minimum wages. But the final blow to Chinese supremacy is soon to arrive with the inevitable appreciation of China’s currency against the U.S. dollar, likely to occur later this year or soon thereafter. Then, higher costs will rapidly result in a swift series of price rises. This will set the stage for a revolution in which traditional manufacturing will give way to a form known as individual additive manufacturing (IAM). This uprising will create a breed of artist/inventor/manufacturers unlike anything the world has ever seen.

The form leading the IAM technologies is something called 3D printing, a process by which a three dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material. Generally faster, more affordable and easier to use than other additive manufacturing technologies, 3D-IAM printing is not off in the distant future, but rapidly happening now.

Using 3D printers, product developers have the ability to design new technological inventions with computer assisted design (CAD) programming that can prototype and test rapidly by printing new parts and assemblies made of multiple materials with different mechanical and physical properties in a single build process. The 3D printer can construct a working model by laying down a series of cross-sectional slices, each of which is then printed one on top of the other to create the 3D object. How difficult is it to implement? According to Autodesk’s Jeff Kowalski, “If you can build something with Legos … you should be able to build things with our software. Our philosophy is to make this available for absolutely everyone.”1

Though still relatively in its infancy, 3D printing will spread rapidly, much as the printing press did across Europe making knowledge rapidly available to everyone. But speed is so much faster, with the law of accelerating returns fully operable, it is possible to estimates that these devices will be in our homes within 5 years, and possibly earlier. Instead of waiting centuries, the implementation will occur in a few years.

Currently, the entry level for a 3D-IAM printer is under $20,000 and the price keep coming down. This is because there is an endless series of applications: industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction, automotive, aerospace, jewelry, and footwear, among others. However, the really big apps will occur in the medical field, and there has already been substantial headway with what is called bio-printing (let’s rename it Bio-IAM printing; that makes it more personal).

From Wikipedia: RepRap Project

Bio-IAM printing technology is currently being developed by biotechnology firms and academia for use in tissue engineering applications where organs and body parts are built using 3D techniques with layers of living cells deposited onto a gel medium and slowly built up to form three dimensional structures. Variously called organ printing, bio-printing, and computer-aided tissue engineering, Bio-IAM printing will be able to produce a hip replacement in one pass, with the ball permanently inside the socket, and even at current printing resolutions the unit will not require polishing. And made from your own tissue so there will be no rejection. Ultimately, all body parts should be reproducible, with improvements built in, and in the convenience of your own home, but this is a little bit further off in the future.

To speed matters even more, there is currently a 3D-IAM project underway to develop a 3D printer (RepRap, short for “replicating rapid prototype”) that can print most of its own components (perhaps all before long). Imagine a 3D printer that prints itself! The age of self-replicating machines is coming. Then a new era of manufacturing will surely be here—self-manufacturing. This is surely a good reason to take your vitamins.


  1. Forbes Video network page. http://video.forbes.com/fvn/future-tech/autodesk-on-3d-printing?feed=rss_technology_breakthroughs%3F. Updated June 29, 2009. Accessed June 30, 2011.

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