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The Fourth Dimension to 3-D Printing

On January 8, 2013, The Washington Post newspaper posted an article about 3D printing and its enormous potential to change the way products are manufactured. Noting the 3D printer’s small size (that of a microwave) and affordable cost ($1500), the author speculates about the societal changes this innovation will engender. Carl Howe, the head of consumer research at Yankee Group, believes 3D printers will soon gain the interest of small businesses, colleges and consumers – not the customary businesses we think of for manufacturing goods.  These disparate groups, he believes, will be able to prototype and manufacture products with much greater ease and fewer costs than traditional manufacturers can now, spurring a new manufacturing business model. And if you have been following the MEP blog, you know that 3D printing and additive manufacturing are considered to be disruptive technologies and are expected to have a colossal influence on existing manufacturing businesses.

But Andrew McAffee, the principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, worries that this new method of production may have a profound impact on the manufacturing workforce, saying “A more productive society is good news, and it allows us to have greater variety and choices [but] what concerns me are the labor-force consequences of such astonishing changes.”

Mr. McAffee provides an interesting perspective about the workforce consequences brought about by new technologies.  Technology, and the pace of change, has a direct impact on the training and workforce needs of organizations as well as how employees will need to respond throughout their careers. To best position themselves, businesses, as well as education providers, must be sure to carefully analyze technology trends, as well as workforce trends, to ensure that employees are prepared for future work.  Unfortunately, a survey from the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College shows manufacturers behind the curve when considering what skills will be needed by employees and what to do about the changing demographics of their workforces (Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers all together!).

Though this chart reflects some real challenges; turning the tables may not be as difficult as it seems. NIST MEP has been working for decades with manufacturers, helping them understand how important business issues, such as commercialization, sustainability, innovation, growth, and workforce development, are evolving.  By virtue of its national network, NIST MEP has access to manufacturing initiatives across all 50 states and can demystify the trends and what they mean, bottom-line.  Armed with an understanding of what’s happening in real time, manufacturers can become more secure in projecting the workforce skills necessary for their continued competitiveness. Additionally, by working closely with academic institutions, manufacturers can help educators understand the skills students need to learn if they want to work in 21st century manufacturing.

Developing a manufacturing workforce with the right skills isn’t a turnkey process – manufacturers will have to plan and manage strategically to attract the talent needed for growth and success. This can be a real differentiator for businesses towards establishing competitive advantage.  As the manufacturing landscape continues to change, it will always need plenty of smart and talented people to be successful.

About the author

Stacey Wagner

Guest blogger Stacey Jarrett Wagner has more than 20 years of experience in workforce development, conducting research and providing strategic thinking and technical assistance on workforce development issues.

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Stacy, excellent article---very thought provoking. Yes, potentially great opportunities to take advantage of new technologies like 3D printers, personal CNC machines, the maker movement to create new business models for small and agile companies. At same time, it does seem that the understanding of the impact of these changes on the manufacturing workforce is emerging more slowly that the rate of application of these new technologies like 3-D printing. Perhaps, a new approach to foster the development of workforce skill sets that accommodate the emerging enterprise models that combine engineering and design with the capability to economically produce things in small numbers. Skills training for employment in the “super job shops” of the future?
This article discusses changes brought about in the workforce due to new technology being introduced. It is spot on about issues that we need to address and understand. Don't hinder the introduction of new technology but use this article as a seed in developing a tool that policy makers can utilize to plan for their communities in adjusting to changes such as discussed.
I just read that the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings propose that the federal government support the designation of a core of approximately 20 leading “Manufacturing Universities.” As part of this designation, academic institutions would receive an annual award from the National Science Foundation, ideally at least $25 million per year, plus prioritization of their other applications in the awarding of National Science Foundation (NSF) grants. Designated universities would have several responsibilities. First, they would be required to revamp their engineering programs much more around manufacturing engineering, with particular emphasis on work that is relevant to industry. This would include more joint industry-university research projects; more training of students that incorporates manufacturing experiences through cooperative education or other programs; and a Ph.D. program focused on turning out more engineering Ph.D.s who would work in industry. These universities would view doctoral training as akin to high-level apprenticeships (as is often the case in Germany) and would not allow the conferral of a Ph.D. unless one has done some work in industry. Likewise, criteria for faculty tenure would consider professors’ work with and/or in industry equally as much as their number of scholarly journal publications. In addition, their business schools would focus on manufacturing issues, including management of production, and integrate closely with the engineering program.
Commercialization and cheap availability are the issues faced by 4D printing. 3D printing has gained primarily because households can afford the devices for less than $1000 and even specialized printers are not very expensive to produce and use. In order to reach costs that are closer to 3D printing, there is a lot of invention room with respect to 4D printing.

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