In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: 3D Revolution will help — and hurt — countries

This week, I saw for the first time a desktop 3D printer, the machine that President Barack Obama recently said will “revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” and that experts say could change the world as much as the steam engine did in the 19th Century, or the Internet at the end of the 20th Century.

A Miami distributor showed me the new technology — actually, it was invented nearly three decades ago, but it has only taken off now — and explained to me how it works.

His machine was not bigger than a desktop computer, and looked like a cross between a home sewing machine and a dentists’ drill. I can’t say it left me flabbergasted, but I felt like I was looking at a slow-moving and rudimentary version of a machine that will soon be as essential as computers, or smart phones.

Many economists agree that 3D printers will bring about a new industrial revolution, and will change the world economy. The new machines can produce almost any object, much like your current 2D printer prints a text on paper.

You call up a design of a product on your computer screen, type the measurements and colors you want, press “enter” on your computer keyboard and — bingo — the printer starts making that product. The machine’s moving needle begins injecting plastic, or whatever other material, into a small surface, and starts building the product, one layer at a time.

Abraham Reichental, the CEO of 3D Systems, one of the world’s largest companies of 3D printers, told me in an interview that these machines are already being used extensively in the aero-space industry to make aircraft parts, and by physicians to make patient-specific knee or hip implants, or hearing devices.

Also, 3D printers can already make shoes, fashion accessories, toys and several other consumer goods, he said.

“This is only the beginning,” Reichental told me. Over the next twelve months, we will see 3D printers producing chocolates, and all kinds of foods with custom-made nutritional values. NASA has already commissioned a 3D printer that will be able to make pizzas in space.

As 3D printers become cheaper, and as it becomes easier to download complex designs onto your computer screen, you will see more sophisticated components and machines being 3D printed, he said.

“The same technology that today is only accessible to deep-pocketed corporations is all of a sudden accessible to anybody via the cloud,” Reichental said. “That is leveling the playing field, and allowing the relocalization of manufacturing, as opposed to making things in far-away countries.”

In other words, consumers across the world will be able to use 3D printers to produce goods at home, or a printing shop near home, and there will be less of a need to import goods from China or Mexico.

According to Reichental, neither China nor Mexico’s economies will suffer devastating blows, because the changes in industrial manufacturing will not be sudden, nor absolute. But many economists believe that some countries will win, and others will lose.

Vivek Wadhwa, a Singularity University and Duke University professor and one of the leading U.S. innovation gurus, told me in a separate interview that the global shift toward more individualized and domestic production with 3D printers “will create havoc in China.”

As for Latin America, Wadhwa says that the move toward 3D printing will benefit importing countries, and hurt exporting ones. But the 3D printing revolution will take place alongside an increased use of robotics in manufacturing, and some manufacturing countries like Mexico will have a big opportunity by teaming up with robotics-intensive U.S. companies thanks to their proximity to the U.S. market, he said.

My opinion: Most of the world hasn’t even heard about it, but 3D printing will indeed bring about a new industrial revolution that will have a huge impact on which countries will prosper, and which won’t.

We are moving deeper into the knowledge economy. In the not so distant future, countries will not export goods, but designs of goods, which other countries will import via the Internet and produce locally with 3D printers.

The countries with good universities and schools that teach entrepreneurship will be able to export their designs via the Internet, and collect royalties. And countries with bad education systems will have to either pirate these designs — and risk becoming pariah states — or pay big royalties for their virtual imports. Quality education will be, as it is now, the name of the game.

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