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3D Printing has been lauded as the next way to bring jobs back to America and the rest of the West by the Economist and other intellectual luminaries like Glenn Beck (cough cough). CAD-to-Print technologies combined with geographic proximity to the buyer has been summed up as the solution to what some call “the China problem”. I don’t see China as a problem – Western consumers save thousands of dollars and China is rapidly industrializing and becoming consumers of Western goods as well. That’s a good thing for everyone in my opinion. How does 3D Printing change this? How does it really.

Labour Costs Still Figure Prominently

The fact remains. 3D Printing is not an automated process, is still slow, can’t incorporate multiple materials well in one process and thus remains uncompetitive with injection moulding. Most importantly, it’s a labour-intensive practice. For all it’s promise, people still have to move one piece from one print bed to another post-processing machine and clean it and glaze it and then package it for shipping. There are few, perhaps none that have created purely automated, CAD-to-your hands printing services. In the meanwhile, the USA and the EU will command the highest wage labour money can buy.


I was surprised to learn that China has a number of homegrown efforts and companies in 3D Printing. In fact, many of them recently went through the roof, reaching their daily trading limit yesterday. The Asian Manufacturing Association and the China 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance are planning to create ‘Innovation Centres’ in ten major industrial cities. Earlier we reported that Northwestern Polytechnic University managed to create a 3 meter long Titanium wing spar, intending to use the technology for lighter, Chinese-made aircraft.

The labor component is going to be a large part of 3D printing costs which means that China can certainly continue to dominate a number of 3D printing services. FigurePrints, a printing services to allow World of Warcraft and MineCraft players to buy their own worlds and player avatars suffers from heavy competition from Chinese companies. They use the same 3D printers yet pass savings from low-labour costs to consumers. It helps that Asia has probably the largest set of gamers in the World.

The Future Battle in the Margins

Not all 3D printing technologies are the same – DShape prints in Concrete (full disclosure: I own DShape Canada), creating pieces that are far too heavy to be shipped from China. Furthermore, the spread of consumer model 3D printers and the explosion of easy-to-use CAD modelling tools mean it is possible for a small shop to create relatively minuscule production runs of a product. Say, specialized tags for delivering flowers. Keychains for businesses. Special iPhone cases for certain occasions. Jewelry. Yes, you can have them printed in China – but there comes a point where specialized or customized work needs to be done face-to-face. It seems very likely that the jobs Glenn sees returning to America are going to be in Fabshops or 3D-Kinkos. Or large-scale 3D printing. When a one-off needs to be done right, you want to have a good working relationship with the manufacturer.


China is closing it’s wage-gap with the rest of the World. Combined with the sheer length and depth of the Great Recession, wages are depressed here, narrowing the gap. Where labour costs are inflexible, other factors like process, shipping and supply management efficiency command a premium. Sculpteo and Shapeways have invested heavily into cleaning inbound STL files and stuffing as many of them into their 3D Printers. Like any business, the battle is to be won on the margins, from the core advantage of the technology outwards.


  • Adam

    Good write-up JF. Couldn’t agree more. Well said.

  • Good article, couldn’t moving parts off the print bed and into the cleaner be automated? Seems like an easy job for a robot..

  • Adam #1 – Would you believe it someone is doing that now….. http://www.3ders.org/articles/20130123-irobot-filed-a-patent-for-autonomous-all-in-one-3d-printing-milling-drilling-and-finishing-robot.html

    But heck man, why is it that we still use humans in Car factories? There are limits…..

    Although the crucial difference is that the computer knows exactly where the piece is in the print bed…. might be good when they remove it.

    Adam #2 – Thank you sir!

  • Lee Lloyd

    I guess someone has to make the counterpoint. This article seems to be an argument about, and between a collection of inaccurate and misleading memes. The first being that “there is no manufacturing in America.” The second being that labor costs appreciably increase the overall price of a product. The third being that 3D printing is anywhere near being a production technology. None of these are true, which makes this a very odd article indeed.

    Starting with the China/America issue; if you use the most favorable (to China) metric, which is to say unadjusted US dollar value of goods produced, then China accounts for around 18.7% of the total value of produced goods, while the US accounts for only 18%, giving China the lead by .7%. If, on the other hand, you use the more generally accepted (by economists) measure of normalized per capita manufacturing value-added, then China ranks 11th, just behind Russia, and just ahead of Brazil, with the top 3 being Japan, Germany and the US in that order. There are of course other ways to measure it, and all have their strengths and weaknesses, but to just pick one metric (which is particularly troublesome because it completely ignores exchange rates, and inflation) and say that therefore China has obvious manufacturing advantages to any other large manufacturing nation, is a dodgy proposition, especially when it is the only metric by which China can be said to be the worlds largest manufacturer, and even that statistic doesn’t really paint a picture of America as a slouch in the manufacturing sector.

    Then on the labor issue; pricing on consumer products (especially the sort of niche custom products that are the only thing suitable for 3D printing) are set by marketing, and what people are willing to pay, not costs. When you say that “Western consumers save thousands of dollars,” I really don’t know what you are referring to, since the generally accepted figures from Harvard Business Review say that the cost differential between Chinese labor costs and US labor costs is about 23%. It would have to be a very big purchase for that to come out to thousands of dollars in savings, even if those savings were passed on to the customers. In reality, it is much more common that customers aren’t ‘saving’ a penny, but rather the company producing the product is making more profit, on the same price they would be charging regardless of costs, because that is the price marketing has determined people want to pay.

    Lastly, is the meme this all centers around, that 3D printing is some magic new way for everyone to have a factory in their garage. Let’s be very clear, 3D printing is a very slow, very expensive way to produce anything. It is a prototyping technology, not a production technology. It is a technology that has a very long way to go, before it can even come close to competing on cost per part or volume over any of the more mature production technologies. Even hand casting in rubber molds is more cost effective and higher volume than 3D printing. While 3D printing might add great value for people making prototypes, it is many years (if ever) before it is at a point where it is a good choice for production runs in the dozens, much less thousands of units.

  • Adam

    All absolutely correct, Lee! I’m with you completely.

  • Tesla doesn’t use that many humans in their factory. Just sayin’. 🙂

  • Good points, Lee. But we best be very aware of what is going on in 3D printing, lest that “long way to go” is shorter than we think and it suddenly bites us mass-producers in the butt. 3D printing has the potential to be a very disruptive technology in ways we may not see coming. Advances in materials technology, cheaper manufacturing technologies, and 3D printing itself are all creating a feedback loop that may well strain even the limits of Moore’s law. I’m definitely not one to dismiss it very quickly.

  • Lee Lloyd

    Oh, certainly the technology will advance, and will get better. However, much like an inkjet printer, there are some factors that make it unlikely that 3D printing will ever be a cost effective mass-manufacturing solution. However, I’m in no way dismissing it, I am just saying that understanding the strengths of the technology, is important to properly leveraging its potential. For example, 3D printing could eventually become a fantastic way to make your master, or perhaps even your molds, for traditional casting, but it is highly unlikely to ever eclipse injection molding as a cost effective manufacturing technology. There is no doubt that it will revolutionize how manufacturing is done, but I am pretty confident that will be from the design and prototype side, not as a direct replacement of existing manufacturing technology.

  • I think it might displace some more specialized manufacturing, and definitely things that are molded in small-scale numbers now. Where we make PVC fittings with one injection molding machine that can produce over 50,000 parts/day, the concern over 3D printing is much lower. We are curious how we might use it in prototyping, but that’s about it.

  • NE_Heights_Elitist

    I would add that it does not (typically) have enough mechanical strength for consumer products that are bound to be abused.

  • +1 for such a well thought out reply.

  • Lee, I agree with everything you say except that 3D printing
    is “not a production technology”. The aerospace and medical
    industries use 3d printed parts for production aircraft and prosthetics, respectively; DMLS, EBM and SLS methods most commonly.

    I do agree that 3Dprinting is currently not a viable mass production technology but that doesn’t take away from its ability to manufacture specialized production parts that would be difficult to realize using more conventional manufacturing technologies.

    An analogy to what you are saying is that milling is not a production
    technology because it will never compete with die casting on a cost-per-part
    basis. But some parts require milling because the material they are to be made
    out of will not cool uniformly and develop stress cracks with use if die
    casted, just as 3d printed parts are necessary when complex undercuts are
    required in a design that conventional manufacturing cannot produce. Everything has its place.

  • Lee Lloyd

    You make a very good point. However, I almost feel like SLS machines belong in a completely separate class from the rest of the 3D print technologies, due to their expense and overhead. I mean realistically, even from a service bureau perspective they are prohibitively expensive to own and operate. How many years do you think it will be before SLS technology is relevant to the sort of small shop or even consumer/prosumer service bureau discussed in this story? I know the last time I priced an SLS part from one of the few companies that have one, I was looking at part costs in the thousands of dollars, for a very small part. Certainly so expensive that it would have been more effective to look at 5-axis milling instead.

  • Josh M

    FDM is even being used for production runs in aerospace. Has been for years. Most commonly for small or hidden parts, one offs, custom fitted bed shrouds to duct work. Cost prohibitive for high production runs but much cheaper and faster than layups and molds where the shape/structure often wouldn’t be possible.

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