3D Printers Aren't the Manufacturing Cure Obama Is Looking For

In his State of the Union address and his road show to tell a manufacturing plan as a job creator, the president has called 3D printing "the future." But a look at the rapidly growing industry's challenges reveals that it may not be growing as fast as the president would like.

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In Tuesday night's State of the Union address, President Obama took his "magnet for new jobs and manufacturing" and stuck it right on a 3D printing company in Ohio, the technology behind which, he said, "has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything." Wednesday afternoon in Asheville, North Carolina, for the beginning of a three-day road show to sell his economic proposals, Obama was more blunt about the potential for the high-tech but far-off industry: "That's the future," he said. Stocks in 3D printing companies went up just thinking of the possibilities. But when it comes to these seemingly magical layering devices, the so-called "second industrial revolution" may not yet be under way. A look at the rapidly growing industry's challenges reveals that it may not be growing as fast as the president would like — not in its ability to manufacture at speed or to coalesce like Silicon Valley, not in its legal mess, and maybe not even in short-term job creation.

Solyndra Light: An Impossible Leap to Mass Market?

The hype cycle, from the tech world and the business community alike, has put the 3D printing "revolution" on the same fast track as the personal computer — both began as hobbyist trends, both with promise as major industries unto themselves, changing lives and creating jobs. As of now, however, 3D printing hasn't hatched, despite all sorts of promise and prototype practicality. And it might take a lot more time and money than anyone's willing to admit for this niche market to move from garage industry to big business.

SHORT-TERM: It's still too hard to make the models. The technology behind 3D printing — its' like building a complex wedding cake, layer by layer, with so-called "additive" solids stacked from an original digital model — already works great for small-scale production, like jewelry and figurines. But the milling and the casting that goes into the final "additive" output make it a more complex process, especially for complex products. "There's not an easy way to cross those boundaries right now," the head of a leading firm called Geomagic explained at a November panel. Even the director of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) — the transformed lab Obama cited in his speech — has said that the 3-D printing moonshot has not yet arrived. From Scientific American in December:

"Manufacturing is much more demanding and complex," said Ralph Resnick, acting director for NAMII. "We need to have projects that have material properties that can meet the necessary requirements, that can be repeatable, and that can be identical from machine to machine, day to day — especially in demanding industries such as aerospace and defense."

On a more basic level, it still takes a very long time to 3D-print a single object. Current technology, for example, only pumps out 400 dental implants for every 18 hours of printing. To make the process faster, some researchers have invested in better lasers that melt powder faster. But, as Deutsche Welle explains, certain materials can sustain the heat. When that doesn't work, the industry tries new lasers. The mold-to-bold process, it seems, is still in the figuring-out phase.

LONG-TERM: The mass-market transition is expensive — for industry and Washington. "There's no reason this can't happen in other towns," Obama said of the NAMII plant's transformation in Ohio. But the NAMII plant only exists because of a $30 million grant from The Defense Department, which big-tech players like IBM, Boeing, and Carnegie Melon have offered to match. This is just one effort, but imagine what it will take to incite a revolution. In order to create the type of innovation needed to bridge the small and mass 3D printing markets, private companies will have to innovate, bigger tech companies will have to buy in, and, most frustratingly, Congress will have to support the whole process, with more spending from the Defense Department and the Energy Department. Obama mentioned a call to Congress to approve a one-time, $1 billion investment to create 15 high-tech "institutes" across the country in the NAMII model, which may or may not pay off. "I need Congress to take up these initiatives," he said in Asheville today.

A Bushmaster in Every Home: The IP Roadblock

As the tech industry has learned in its post-boom phase, if anything can hinder next-level innovation and growth, it's the legal infighting that comes after the legal groundwork.

SHORT-TERM: There are impending copyright issues: In order to make a thing, a 3D printer needs a CAD-style image of a product, which leads to a whole host of intellectual-property issues.  From The Economist in September:

The object can be designed on a computer using CAD software, or files of standard objects can be downloaded from open-source archives such as Thingiverse and Fab@Home. Most likely, though, the object to be produced is copied from an existing one, using a scanner that records the three-dimensional measurements from various angles and turns the data into a CAD file. 

That loophole has already been used against 3D printers. Two Carnegie Mellon researchers who  designed toy parts got a complaint for their design. So did a man who designed the Penrose triangle. That second legal matter was resolved with the designer coming out of it clean, but there's a lot of reason to believe as 3D printing tries to go mainstream, these types of requests will only increase.

LONG-TERM: Big business has a big incentive to disrupt down. So, all the companies that rely on traditional manufacturing — that may or may not have been fading since the recession, that may or may not feel undermined by coming competition — probably won't like this "disruptive" technology. Let's go back to the PC analogy: "When entrenched interests began to understand just how disruptive personal computing could be (especially massively networked personal computing) they organized in Washington, D.C. to protect their incumbent power," wrote intellectual property expert Michael Weinberg in his white paper on 3D printing's next chapter. He expects the same thing to happen again, with companies using copyright laws written for a bygone-era to protect their designs from next-gen replication. The gun industry, for example, might not like homemade replicas eating into its Bushmaster sales. (Then again, a lot of people might not like those.)

The Wrong Kinds of Jobs: 3D's Specialization Reality Check

When politicians say "manufacturing revolution," people get excited because they think "factory jobs." Turns out, 3D printing might not create that many as the industry is currently positioned.

SHORT-TERM: Small Scale versus Wholesale: So, we know that 3D printing isn't quite ready for factory life on a mass scale, but that it's getting there. And while presumably major products — from cars to houses — could someday roll off a 3D assembly line, their job-creating subsidiaries — car parts and household items, where jobs actually disappeared in the recession — could end up more of a DIY side project than an industry boon reliant on human beings in a factory. Here's Weinberg, the IP expert, once more:

While 3D printing could be used to create wholesale copies of manufactured goods, it could also be used to create replacement parts for worn or broken goods. Instead of scouring the Internet for that oddly shaped bracket or hinge, an individual could simply print out a perfect replacement part. In fact, the individual might decide to improve upon the original part to prevent it from breaking in the future.

Kind of like the paper printers we're used to, 3D printers might make their way into specialty shops, places users go just to make replacement parts, as The Newstatesman's Spencer Thomas argues. "The greatest potential for 3D printing is for retailers to be able to offer personalised, print-on-demand products at the point of sale," he writes. That will bring a certain type of manufacturing back to America. But that sounds more like a drug-store photo machine than a Kodak factory — humans doing their own work, not workers finding new lives.

LONG-TERM: Private-public partnerships don't happen overnight. According to a White House memo released today, the Obama administration claims it can "make progress right away" by supporting the high-tech, NEMII-style institutes with "partnerships among business, universities and community colleges, and government, to develop and build manufacturing technologies and capabilities that will help U.S.-based manufacturers and workers create good jobs." But those kinds of partnerships take a long time, whether government funding happens or not, and not every community college can be a Carnegie Mellon success story. Creating good jobs, it may turn out, is harder than wishing on a seemingly magical device.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.