Monday, February 24, 2014

The Next Industrial Revolution: Democratizing industry or enforcing current hierarchies?

First, there were factories... you know the scene: 1800s London, relatively unscrupulous labor practices, cotton in the air as hundreds work at the first real larg-scale machines...

Then, there were replaceable parts which led the way to the assembly line. Manifest Destiny made it so that people in the American West were in great need of things easily made and quickly replaced... and industry responded with replaceable parts. First in guns-- but then, unmistakeably one of the best achievements of the 20th century, in cars, with the advent of  the Model T. 


Some believe that 3D printing is the third industrial revolution. It allows for the combination of a craft approach with an automated production. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has taken almost 30 years to become really applicable. It has a wide variety of applications, for almost every industry, from fashion to medical devices to parts in fighter jets. In Haiti, there's a group looking to use 3D printing to better the conditions of hospitals. The founder explains: "..while I was in Haiti last year, a dear friend of mine was running a hospital all by herself with limited resources. One night she wound up having to deliver five babies and they had no umbilical cord clamps, so they were using their own rubber gloves, cutting them to tie off the umbilical cords, which meant that they went through their rubber gloves and had to then deliver babies barehanded with women that were HIV-positive. And all I could think was, wow, if we had a 3-D printer, I could've been printing on-demand umbilical cord clamps for you. So now our guys, or our students that we work with, are actually learning how to make very simple medical devices."

I will examine two things strike me about the disruptive nature of 3D printing: its specialized human capital requirements (and those implications) as well as the possibility it holds for developing countries.

First, that the very nature of this as an 'industrial revolution' is slightly different. While it has the capability to become the creatively destructive power required in any advent that changes the way we do things, this technology requires different types of human capital than the two before it. Industrialization has typically seen an increased use of low-skill labor which, when leveraged by increases in better capital, produce higher profits and push production forward. 3D printing requires the opposite kind of human capital, specifically something we're short of anyway: engineers. A developing country, or even a country like Mexico that is more developed than many nations but still not to the same level as its northern neighbor, does not have large amounts of the type of human capital that mass additive manufacturing would need. The nature of this disruptive technology, then, is quite different. And in being so, I'm not sure we will see the shifts or changes prophecied by many.

The second thing that strikes me about this technology is its democratization. The relatively inexpensive costs associated with a 3D printer, combined with the ability to go online and find design specs, has made 3D printing accessible where manufacturing has previously used trade secrets to increase their competitive edge (and profits). The open source nature of much of 3D printing enables increased knowledge sharing, which can produce positive externalities like knowledge spillover. This means that what Ashley Dara and iLab Haiti are doing for hospitals could be replicated and improved upon throughout the developing world. Much like mobile technology has increased access to better governance, education, and health in the developing world, 3D printing could speed development significantly. The applications are not just in simple medical devices- but in parts to repair basic infrastructure. Some say 3D printing enables faster and cheaper construction, especially after a disaster or conflict, which for some developing nations is a major hurdle. The best part? Developing countries are perfectly suited to this new paradigm shift: the initial cost is low and a lack of certain existing infrastructure isn't as much as a problem in additive manufacturing as it is in manufacturing as we know it today.

The impact of the technology on developing countries can be conflicting: first, it has very exciting implications that can quicken development in many countries. Unfortunately, however, it has the implications that many firms are shifting their manufacturing back to the U.S. or other rich nations, thereby possibly reducing employment of the low-skilled labor in those countries. It also increases the need for high-skilled labor globally, meaning the economic benefits of this technology will likely accrue to the rich countries, and those that are already well-off within them. In a time in which inequality is already high, these are issues that should concern policy makers. 

So then... is 3D printing good for the developing world, all things considered? Can it be a force- like some argue the internet is- for leveling the playing field? Or will it just reinforce our current global hierarchy?


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