Can 3D Printing Revive America’s Middle Class?

Shapeways Shop Owner Stijn van der Linden of Virtox designs holds the popular selling Gyro Cube.

Shapeways Shop Owner Stijn van der Linden of Virtox designs holds the popular selling Gyro Cube.

3D printing has been posited as the catalyst of the next industrial revolution. To make a difference to America’s middle class, whose median annual household income has dropped by more than $4,000 since 2000, the technology will have to bring about an economy as bustling as the first industrial revolution.

Fewer than one-third of Americans believe economic conditions will improve next year. Could 3D printing turn things around?

It certainly shows huge promise. McKinsey estimates that the 3D printing industry has the potential to generate between $230 billion and $550 billion in economic impact by 2025. With U.S. companies like GE, 3D Systems, Stratasys, and Shapeways investing in it, the nation is undoubtedly well-positioned to reap the benefits of this incredible technology. And already it is stimulating job growth and contributing to economic spillover effects in design, research & development, supply chain, and entrepreneurship.

Take for example Shapeways, an online service provider for personalized 3D printed products that has created over 100 jobs in the last two years and helped fuel the birth of more than 11,000 new small businesses. Shapeways makes it possible for anyone—from designers to niche 3D modelers—to start a business.

Experts predict that the consumer market will account for 60 percent of the total estimated 3D printing market. Printing entrepreneurs have a huge opportunity to create thriving, sustainable businesses. 3D Printing companies have a huge opportunity to create thriving, sustainable manufacturing plants.

With the endless applications of 3D printing in both the consumer and business arenas, more companies will open up manufacturing plants across the country, bringing back a segment of the jobs lost in recent decades of outsourcing to Asia. These companies need highly qualified engineers and laborers who can produce high-quality products.

Thorn Dice designed by Made by Wombat, 3D Printed by Shapeways.

Thorn Dice designed by Made by Wombat, 3D Printed by Shapeways.

It is increasingly likely that they will establish these plants here in the U.S. and not in Asia. Why? With 3D printing there is a clear logic to produce close to the consumer: labor costs are low. The need to manufacture in low-wage countries is eliminated and manufacturing location choice is driven by distribution costs and speed of delivery. For quick and smart iterations of the highly customized and unique designs that can be made with 3D printing, it makes sense to make the products close to the customer.

For these reasons 3D printing manufacturing locations are being built around America. Redeye has a big plant in Minnesota that produces short and longer production runs of anything from car parts to 3D printed tools and jigs. GE produces parts for aviation. Shapeways has built a factory in Queens, New York, to create unique products for customers  across the U.S. And, with focus, Detroit could turn the promise of 3D printing into an economic boon.

The Motor City is already becoming a mecca for contemporary art. Its rich cultural undercurrent paired with a revitalized job market and heightened private investment, positions Detroit for reignited economic growth. In the creative scene, designers can build their businesses around selling their imaginative designs worldwide as 3D-printed products. With its long manufacturing history and its qualified workforce, Detroit, it would not be farfetched to imagine, could host rows of 3D printers humming through the nights.

3D printing is poised to have a disruptive impact on how products are designed, made, distributed, and sold. It is not the panacea that will heal the American middle class, but it will contribute significantly with the creation of well-paid manufacturing jobs, and it will empower a new group of individuals to own their destinies by selling the fruits of their imagination and ingenuity.

The promise is there, some of the impact is already palpable, and this is just the beginning.

Marleen Vogelaar is the chief strategy officer and co-founder of the 3D-printing startup Shapeways. She is a speaker at the Sept. 17 Techonomy Detroit conference.

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