Is 3D printing the next job killer?

In early December I went to one of the few camera shops left in San Francisco, although I don’t live there I have bought cameras and lenses there many times (Discount Camera in Kearny – I love the place!). I was looking for a fix lens for my Olympus OMD-EM5, a 45mm and as usual, I ended up with a different model, a fantastic Leica lens. Throughout the buying process we were chatting about what had happened to camera shops. Can you guess how many are left? Only two downtown ! wow !

This is a familiar experience to all of us. Where is the photo-lab next door? And the record shop? How many hours did you spend browsing through vinyl’s first and CD’s later? They are all gone.

We normally say that Digital Photography killed Kodak, although in fact they invented it. But, what about the ecosystem? From photo-labs to photo-albums, a whole industry devoted to it has also gone.

Maybe the case of music is even better known and studied. It’s not only about the big record companies, but also the transformation of the business model and the whole ecosystem around it. Records and books used to take up a quite a lot of space at home. Now they are mostly decorative objects.

Many times when we think of disruptive technologies we think about the incumbents, the big companies that went from dominating the market to bankruptcy. But we don’t often  remember the many jobs and business around the large companies that have been washed away by the tide of disruptive innovation. With them a myriad of jobs, companies and even competences got lost forever.

Will that be the case of 3D printing? Will 3D printing wipe out so many manufacturing jobs and will rock our economies?

Certainly we have reasons to worry, if we look at record shops, bookstores or camera shops, we will hear a familiar story that we all know. Will that be the case of 3D printing? We have reasons to worry.

When Winsun, a Shanghai based company that uses 3D printing to print up to five story houses, builds a house with 3D printing they use 60% less materials, 70% less time and 80% less labor compared to building a typical home. When Local Motors use 3D printing to print a car, they take only 44 hours. In general 3D printing disrupts manufacturing by compressing the production process into a single act: printing. And by doing that the whole logistic chain of suppliers, machines, pre-assembly, … disappears. And with them the jobs and the companies that used to carry out these tasks. In fact, it is from this disappearance from where the savings come.

This is nothing new. Do you remember the whole process of taking a photo, taking it to the lab, choosing the type of paper, … this was the value chain of analog photography that is simply … gone.

There is however a big difference. Now it is not a sector, everything can be printed. Pastry chefs are experimenting with printed cakes, Nike now prints sneakers, clothes and prosthetics don’t seem to be far away and we even hear of printed organs. 3D printing, in contrast with Digital Photography, is a generic technology that can be applied if not to everything, to a great deal areas.

Are we doomed then? Not so fast …

Let’s go back for a moment to Digital Photography. Yes all the labs and shops are gone, however a new type of ecosystem have appeared. Do you use Instagram, Camera+ or any of the photo sharing or photo retouching apps available? I bet you do. Maybe you even are a selfie fan with a selfie stick ! Yes, the old ecosystem is gone and is gone forever, but a new one has been created. The story is as old as humanity, manual or low quality labor has been replaced by a more creative one: labs are gone but apps are in. You may say that the amount of jobs and business that were lost in the old one are not offset by the new one. I will say that that depends because they are completely different but in general new technologies widens the usage and generates more overall value. This has been the case with photos that now are everywhere.

However, what is important is what we can do about it and this speaks about the need for change. If you hang on the old ecosystem you are lost because the competences needed to benefit from the opportunities of the new one are frequently radically different from the ones that made you successful in the old one.

Certainly, printing houses will bring new opportunities such as unlimited customization so will do printing cars but taking advantage of them will also ask for new skills such as for example knowing how to use Cad/Cam software and the programming competences needed for creating interfaces between different components.

In general we are talking about change. Given the fact that we cannot stop progress the question is: Are we prepare to take advantage of it or we will continue to complain about it while others create this new future? Maybe the answer is not far away, it depends only on us.