Although three-dimensional (3D) printing – turning digital models into solid objects by adding layers – has been around for more than 20 years, it has been used mostly by companies to produce prototypes. Recently, however, thanks to a drop in costs and the growing array of materials than can be used, 3D printing is increasingly seen as the next big thing in manufacturing, and even a way to reshore jobs back to developed economies.

Jim Allen, economic development consultant and director of Shapeways, a New York-based 3D print company, says of the benefits: “Additive [3D] printing offers shorter product development cycles, which lead to more and better products for consumers, and enables mass customisation and personalisation. From an economic development point of view, it hits its two key metrics: job creation and economic wealth creation.” Shapeways itself can be seen as a proof of that, he adds.

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Since it was founded in 2007, Shapeways has sold more than 1 million 3D printed objects, ranging from tie clips through to glass frames and camel-shaped eggcups. “We have 350,000 community members and more than 11,000 ‘shop owners’ – individuals or groups of individuals who supplement their income by selling their creations on Shapeways. There is also anecdotal evidence of some shop owners earning their entire income from 3D printed objects,” says Mr Allen.

The best and brightest

But the impact of 3D printing goes beyond producing quirky objects. The growing number of people participating in the so-called ‘maker movement’ helps to change the image of manufacturing and that in turn attracts talent to high-value production processes.

“We had a gap for a period of time when manufacturing was looked down upon as being dirty and dangerous. A resurgence of interest in making things helps us to be more competitive globally, as we can get the best and brightest people into manufacturing,” says Ralph Resnick, founding director of America Makes – the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a Youngstown, Ohio-based public-private entity launched in 2012 as a part of president Barack Obama's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership.

“We aim to discover the research coming from universities and labs, and to help new additive printing technologies be transitioned into commercialisation,” says Mr Resnick. Discoveries made by America Makes are most likely to fall on fertile ground as 3D printing is quickly going beyond the maker movement and prototyping. Already about 95% of all in-ear hearing-aid shells produced worldwide are made by additive manufacturing, while US aerospace giant Boeing to date has made more than 22,000 3D printed parts for its civilian and military planes.

Entering the mainstream

“Additive printing is already becoming mainstream in the commercial and industrial sectors. Some products can only be made by 3D printing or at prohibitively high cost using conventional manufacturing techniques and requiring many more steps and parts,” says Mr Allen.

These developments give a glimmer of hope to those waiting to see a revival in manufacturing in the US and other developed countries. “Additive manufacturing to some extent could lead to reshoring of manufacturing jobs as most 3D printer manufacturers and 3D printing services are based in the US or Europe and are staffed by skilled, well-paid employees,” says Mr Allen. “But 3D printing will not supplant traditional manufacturing in the near term. Rather it will complement and make those techniques more efficient.”  

Yet, as the pace of developments in additive manufacturing speeds up, so does overseas competition. “Additive manufacturing received recognition in President Obama's State of the Union address at the beginning of 2013,” says Mr Resnick. “Since then we have been observing an increased level of investments [in 3D printing] in China.”