The conventional wisdom is that American manufacturing jobs, once lost to low-wage locales around the globe, will never again return to the U.S. What that fails to take into account is a revolution in manufacturing that is being brought about by new 3D printing technologies that make it possible to "print" items, such as jewelry or furniture or consumer goods, on demand.
This may sound like a futuristic technology, but tomorrow is actually closer than we might think. In its annual trend report for 2011, JWT cited 3D Printing as one of the Top 100 trends to watch for the year. Companies like HP and Google are developing next-generation 3D printing technologies that aim to go far beyond the initial test cases we've seen so far. In two minutes or less, you can already take your favorite saying or poem, design it into a one-of-a-kind light poem lamp, and have the final product shipped to your door, all for less than the cost of a ticket to a Yankees baseball game. And, as JWT points out, there's even a company in Los Angeles working on a way to "print" a home.
The latest proof-of-concept is the new Air Bike from the European Aerospace and Defense Group (EADS). Using a process similar to 3D printing, the engineers at EADS developed a manufacturing process that uses a laser to build up a bicycle out of a powdered material, layer-by-layer. In this case, the bike was made of nylon in a process that resulted in a frame as strong as steel or aluminum, but 65% lighter.
From a jobs perspective, what's most encouraging about this next-generation technology is that some foreign companies are actually relocating to the U.S. to tap into America's leading-edge design and innovation talent. Dutch innovator Shapeways (the creator of the afore-mentioned light poem), for example, recently relocated its HQ to New York City -- not exactly the first place you'd think of as a manufacturing hub. Firms are obviously willing to relocate and move not due to cheaper labor costs, but due to the close proximity to innovative talent and financial backing (the company raised $5 million from NYC investors).
Innovations like the new HP Designjet 3D Printer, available for about the cost of a new car, are still too expensive for mainstream adoption. However, as the price point drops, it's easy to see how the manufacturing playing field will tilt in favor of small, lightweight competitors using desktop printing techniques. Not only are these "factories of tomorrow" more environmentally-conscious due to a decrease in the raw materials required to build new items, they also radically change the whole "planned obsolescence" cycle. No product ever truly becomes obsolete - you just print a new replacement part, or swap out an older part of the product for a newer, better-designed part. And, best of all, all of this will be possible at the fingertips of any individual, driving down the total cost of the product.
The factories of tomorrow will require a paradigm shift in thinking. Let's face it, when you think of "factories," you think of bustling sweatshops in places like China or 20th-century assembly lines in faded manufacturing hubs in the American Rust Belt. However, what if the factory of tomorrow turns out be an airy loft studio for urban creative types, filled with 3D desktop printers outfitted with CAD software, capable of printing anything and everything on demand?