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.

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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.

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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.

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