Of Labour, Unions and 3D Printing

Posted by on May 26th 2013 @ 7:53 pm

originally published in Arbitrage Magazine
May 2013 (feature: “The Revolution is 3D,” Vol. 5, No. 3)

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With employment figures still rebounding from post-recession levels, an unlikely new issue has entered the labour debate.

Conventional manufacturing uses human labour to chisel raw material down into specific shapes or moulds. And according to the technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa, that is an inefficient process. He told Forbes last year: “The more complex the product you want to create, the more labour is required and the greater the effort” — all of which translates into higher costs. The process of 3D printing flips that convention. Instead of subtracting layers of material from raw input, 3D printing constructs an object from scratch by adding successive layers of thin raw material until the desired shape is achieved. This means there is no waste by-product and no additional cost to the complexity of an item.

Manufacturing with 3D printing can also be cheaper and less time- consuming. This is especially so when the process is employed for one-off projects such as prototypes or experiments with complex geometries.

The technology even makes possible the manufacturing of objects which, by traditional means, used to be impossible. These include, among others, complex objects like skeletal structures, human tissue and organs and even the theoretically-impossible Penrose triangle.

And for some, this new and more efficient way of manufacturing seems to herald a bleak future. In January, the Associated Press (AP) reported that “almost all the jobs disappearing are in industries that pay middle-class wages.” The reason for this disappearance: “Those jobs are being replaced…by machines and software that can do the same work better and cheaper.”

Indeed — 3D printing is rife in the global jobs debate . Not all agree that its impact is wholly negative, though — for many, it could also be a boon. But whatever the case, its potential to disrupt traditional manufacturing processes is as large as the technological revolutions currently sweeping industries such as media and telecommunications. Given the global reach of the manufacturing industry, 3D printing’s impact is poised to be even larger.

Why now?

This kind of technology has been around since the late 1980s, when companies used it for prototyping and product development purposes. Only recently, however, have companies begun to expand the technology into other aspects of production.

Phil Reeves, managing director of the 3D printing consultancy Econolyst, explains this shift to Arbitrage in a phone interview.

“It’s only in the last 10 years that companies have begun looking at 3D type technology as a way of changing their global supply chain,” says Reeves. “Before that, the technology was seen wholly as a tool to assist in the product development process — never as a manufacturing solution.”

Reeves recalls a friend who, many years ago, suggested the potential of 3D technology when applied to manufacturing processes during a speech at a leading industry conference. “His views were almost seen as heretical, or humorous,” Reeves says.

The global manufacturing industry is now beginning to address and wrestle with the disruptive potential of 3D printing. But it’s impossible to pinpoint the precise moment when it began to turn mainstream — or at least more affordable to the general public.

On the supply side, costs of 3D printers — both consumer and industrial — have dropped to more affordable levels. On the demand side, there have been numerous changes in the global economy over the past decade that have given companies reasons to reconsider the technology.

For one, labour costs are consistently rising even in low-wage countries like China. The global recession, moreover, has inspired a political pressure on companies to create jobs locally. The development of affordable 3D printing gives companies a way to bring manufacturing back home. It seems this new ability to localize manufacturing could serve as a direct counter-balance to the globalizing effects of outsourcing. “If 3D printing does democratize manufacturing, it will truly do it,” Reeves says. “There’s no reason it won’t be used to manufacture products for South America within South America.” This re-outsourcing strategy is beginning to make a lot of business sense. Many companies have reflected on the outsourcing boom as something of a mistake — the effect of a short- term and misguided strategy, as experts told the Atlantic last year.

The General Electric (GE) CEO Jeffrey Immelt said that outsourcing “is quickly becoming outdated as a business model for GE Appliances.”

John Shook, CEO of the efficiency think-tank the Lean Enterprise Institute, said: “There was a herd mentality to the offshoring. And there was some bullshit. Many of the biggest costs were hidden.”

Arguably the biggest of these costs was the loss of proprietary knowledge and control — the kind of know-how a company can retain only by continuing to make its products itself.

The Atlantic conveys this idea by comparing the factory to a laboratory: “How you run the factory is a technology in and of itself. Your factory is really a laboratory — and the R&D that can happen there, if you pay attention, is worth a lot more to the bottom line than the cost savings of cheap labour in someone else’s factory.”

Companies such as GE, Apple and the household appliance maker Whirlpool have already announced plans to open new factories back home. Political leaders are also beginning to recognize the importance of fostering a national base of manufacturing know-how. Many recent efforts focus specifically on 3D printing.

Funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, Canada’s $18.9 million SMART program supports local companies working to advance 3D printing technology.

In his State of the Union address in February, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to push through Congress US $1 billion of support for the development of additive manufacturing clusters around the country.

The U.K. has introduced research grants similar to Obama’s proposal.

And China has introduced the first plan aimed directly at developing indigenous 3D printing technology. The investment is intended not necessarily for the export market, but to inhibit the import of overseas technology.

Many politicians have even singled out jobs as their administrations’ pet issue. And the underlying consensus seems to be that if we want the global economy to bounce back, we need to be chiefly concerned with getting people back to work.

A good first step in addressing the jobs issue is to recognize what kinds of jobs are being eliminated.

How does this affect jobs?

Carl Bass is the CEO of Autodesk, a leading 3D design software company based out of California. The fledgling company has earned accolades from the likes of Fast Company and Dow Jones for its commitment to innovation and sustainability. Bass is a regular on the industry conference circuit. Last fall, he discussed the impact of additive manufacturing on the labour market, particularly around unskilled or traditional manufacturing jobs.

“You look back, and around the turn of the century, the 1900s, 40 per cent of the American workforce was in agriculture,” says Bass. “Today, it’s less than two per cent. We’re able to do it through better productivity, through mechanization and through computers. The same thing is going to happen to manufacturing.”

In the 1950s, over 30 per cent of the United States’ workforce was employed in manufacturing. Today, that number is just above 10 per cent. Indeed, the U.S.’ manufacturing sector, much like its agricultural one, has declined in demand over the past century.

That is namely due to the advent of mechanization and technology. As a result, many of the remaining jobs have been outsourced to developing countries — an apparent standard for most developed nations.

A fabled story about the late Apple founder Steve Jobs involves an exchange he had with President Obama at a breakfast with other “titans of Silicon Valley.” Obama asked Jobs what it would take to make iPhones in the U.S. Jobs replied: “Those jobs are gone. And they’re not coming back.”

The negative impact of this shift is a loss of low-skilled jobs back home. The positive side is that it pushes the job requirements further up the value chain. Jobs followed up his comment with an oft-overlooked statistic: There are more people working in North America designing and developing apps than there ever were involved in the local manufacturing of devices.

Additive printing technology has the potential to create similar new labour markets within the manufacturing industry. The technology could create more demand for skilled workers such as industrial designers and inventory managers, as well as create completely new roles from scratch.

Backlash and Complications

The process of 3D printing undoubtedly threatens low-wage jobs both at home and overseas, but it also has the potential to complicate higher-value roles.

For example, an inventory manager will be required to have quite different skills and prerequisites based on whether he’s applying for work at a traditional manufacturing firm or at a firm using 3D printing. This inherent threat, along with the recent attention given to 3D printing in the press, may be a signal for labour groups to begin mobilizing a defence.

Econolyst’s Reeves told Arbitrage Magazine about the only 3D printing- related labour issue he had come across. It involved an American automotive manufacturing firm.

Like most car manufacturers, the company had been using additive technology for decades, but solely for prototyping purposes. Then, they decided to start using the technology for the actual production of low-value components. The unions fought this decision. They claimed that the people who worked in the model shop were “model-makers” and not “manufacturers.” These model-makers belonged to a higher pay-grade than that of manufacturers, and the unions argued it was unacceptable for these workers to be subject to lower-value manufacturing work.

As 3D printing becomes more widely used, it seems an ambiguity in the definition of labour roles will naturally take root, blurring the lines between areas such as manufacturing, product development and retail services. How people label themselves will affect things like their pay and skill requirements. Health and safety guidelines may also become an issue down the line as more people begin to work with the technology. There currently is little information available on such guidelines.

Another potential issue facing 3D printing is the misapplication of its technology. In addition to manufacturing, construction is another industry that could potentially be disrupted by additive processes. There have been many one-off projects of 3D-printed buildings these projects feel more like novelties than case studies that can be replicated and scaled.

Reeves suspected that the idea of applying 3D printing to construction activities seemed like a nonsensical premise. He recalled that the construction industry has been making things in layers for two-and-a- half thousand years. It started with the Egyptians and the pyramids; and, even today, most brick buildings are still made in layers. Reeves doubted the logic of bringing to a site a machine that’s bigger than the building to be made.

“There’s little evidence of anything particularly useful in the construction domain,” Reeves says. “It almost feels like a solution looking for a problem. The benefit of 3D printing is always the manufacture of high-value, low-volume, complex geometries. Most architectural scales just don’t fall into that.”

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