Three years ago I blogged about 3D printing, which at the time was still somewhat of a novelty though 3D printers were available from several manufacturers and it was supported by 3D design tools like AutoCAD. Since then prices have come down dramatically, capabilities of 3D printers and design tools have gone up, an on-line fabrication service industry has developed, and you can even do it with free 3D design apps on an iPad.
The Third Industrial Revolution ?
A recent report in The Economist makes the case that additive manufacturing, another term for the 3D printing, and other digital technologies are transforming manufacturing, Making small numbers of things can be done economically. Manufacturing will be much more labour efficient potentially bringing back the employment that was shipped overseas to China and other countries with low labour costs. It also reduces the cost of entry for new entrepreneurs, one of the things that desktop software did in the 1980's, and that the web has done even more pervasively in the 2000's. You don't have to be big any more to manufacture things.
Additive manufacturing is only one of a number of technologies that are transforming manufacturing that include smarter, digital machine tools, robots with vision and other sensors, and more people involved in creating the designs and fewer in the actual making of things. Digitization in manufacturing will be disruptive in the classic sense that Clayton Christensen has identified. There will even be "social manufacturing", on-line fabrication services in a Facebook-like environment.
The result will be, The Economist argues, the third industrial revolution.