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Some say it is just a load of hype, that 3D printing will change the world by about as much as South Sea investment opportunities did in the 18th century. Others say that it may indeed change the economy, but the inevitable result will be job losses.  For investors, buying into 3D printing may make sense, but for the economy, which relies on demand, any technology that destroys jobs may lead to permanent economic depression? Who is right?


Let me start by apologising to cynics. Sorry, but you are wrong.  Sure it is easy to poke fun at this new miracle technology by looking at what the technology is doing now, but that is not the point.

On the whole, it is human nature to overstate the important of new technology in the short run, but understate its importance in the long term. It is also human nature to learn the wrong lessons from our experiences.

The dotcom crash illustrates both my points. Dotcom stocks surged in the late 1990s because we had fallen for that first foible of ours: the tendency to overstate the importance of new technology in the short run. Look at the Internet today, however, and you can see that the dream of many of those early dotcom projects has become a reality. In fact I go further. The Internet has changed the economy and people’s lives over the past 12 years in ways that are far more significant than most predicted in 2000. But in the aftermath of the dotcom crash, a consensus emerged that a dotcom economy was a pipedream; that the Internet was over-hyped, and online shopping would always be small fry. In short we drew the wrong lesson from the dotcom crash.

This is not new. I experienced something similar first hand in the 1980s, when I worked in computer PR. Back then there was a consensus that the computer games industry was a here today gone tomorrow business.  The thing I tried to explain to financiers and indeed the national press was that the scale of the computer games industry was correlated with the advance of technology. Once computers became faster and had bigger memories, computer games would be more realistic, and the industry would not just grow, but grow at a phenomenal rate. I met resistance to that idea, even within the computer games industry itself. Today the computer/video games industry dwarfs, by a considerable magnitude, the industry of the 1980s.

In the world of technology we can often pass a kind of tipping point. The chips, or state of engineering, may progress at a given pace, but once it passes a certain point, we get take-off. This is what happened with Apple. Its onus on design and functionality seemed to be a flawed strategy for years as the company went close to going bust. But then a few years into the new millennium technology was advanced enough for the ideas of Steve jobs to suddenly be realistic. Design and computers came together, and Apple… well you know what happened next.

3D printing is not over-hyped. It is just not quite there yet. But it is advancing at a remarkable pace. Within a few years of 3D printing having minor applications relevant to the mass market, it will offer applications of use all around us.

3D printing may represent the end of assembly line production. It may cede the advantage in the world of manufacturing to countries with a highly educated work-force, over countries with cheap labour. But what will we be able to create using 3D printing? Will it enable us to print living cells, or delicious meals from raw ingredients?

But what about jobs? It is very difficult to see how 3D printing can do anything other than destroy jobs. In such a scenario, aggregate demand will fall. The paradox of 3D printing is that it may create economic depression lasting for years.

On the other hand, an article in yesterday’s ‘Telegraph’ by Allister Heath got me thinking. He referred to the idea of the long tail. This was a concept described by Chris Anderson (former editor of ‘Wired’). Thanks to the Internet, it is possible for producers to supply their products to a global audience. This in turn makes it viable to produce products that in a pre-Internet world would not have been viable, because demand would have been inadequate.

What 3D printing will do is make it viable to produce many more niche products, catering for very small audiences. Ironically, the technology that is 3D printing may create a return to a kind of craftsman type economy, it is just the craftsman of the future will be experts in using technology as well as design. I find that quite an optimistic thought.

And by the way, it does rather make all this talk of the UK putting more emphasis on its manufacturing industries look a tad stupid. Why return to traditional industries just as they are set to face their biggest threat?

 

These views and comments are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employees.


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