I had the distinct privilege of being invited to and attending a recent session at the World Economic Forum—Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco. It was a remarkable experience for a handful of reasons, and I thought that I would take this opportunity to share a bit about the experience with our blog readers.
The World Economic Forum and 3Diligent
So for starters, I figure it best to establish what the World Economic Forum is, what it does, and what its goals are. Frankly, my understanding of the World Economic Forum prior to this event was largely that of a trade organization that pulls together leaders from across the world of business. There seem to be annual protests at their event in Davos, Switzerland, because the folks participating are in decision-maker positions. Upon arrival, I realized the World Economic Forum is focused on advancing the standing of humankind. Obviously, they view trade as a key means of doing that. However, important to the purpose is understanding the way that new technologies are impacting the world, the disruption that it may potentially have on humanity, and articulating potential solutions so that governmental organizations—who are typically slower to act than businesses—can effectively govern and minimize adverse impacts.
Therefore, it was with this context that I was invited to the 3D Printing and Trade Logistics working session at the World Economic Forum. We at 3Diligent were honored to be invited as a company that possesses significant visibility into the market and a very active day-to-day role in engaging with those companies and the manufacturing organizations that are making use of the technology.
What Will 3D Printing Headlines Look Like in 20 – 50 Years?
The first thing we did at the World Economic Forum, after a few introductory remarks, was to think about headlines from 20 – 50 years in the future that might be related to 3D printing. The ideas the group landed on were really interesting…
Changing of the Guard
One set of thinkers anticipated a complete changing of the guard in terms of leadership in the aerospace industry—tied to upstart organizations that had advanced 3D printing to a point where their planes were almost entirely 3D printed to provide unmatched fuel savings and price competitiveness in the transport market.
Bio 3D Printing to Prevent Remote, Fatal Accidents
Another group of thinkers anticipated a hypothetical calamitous event in a national park where an individual had lost an appendage. New arms, ears, or eyes could be printed on demand and airlifted to the site of the carnage so the patient could make a rapid recovery—instead of what would have normally been almost certain death.
Bio 3D Printing for Survival in Extreme Environments
Yet another group of thinkers anticipated a colony of autonomous humanoid beings, derived from advanced bio 3D printing technologies, capable of living in the depths of the Marianas Trench—tens of thousands of feet underwater—due to adaptations 3D printers were capable of providing to them.
In brief, some pretty crazy stuff—but crazy only in so far that this group of industry leaders felt that the stories were entirely plausible within the next 30 years.
A Challenge Resulting from Future Developments
Next, we began considering some of the key challenges such future developments would have on human society, as well as actions that could be taken to address those challenges. Our group listed out a broad set of challenges tied to themes including the workforce, security, business models, ethical/moral, cross-border flows, and standardization.
Workforce Displacement from Robots and AI
By far the consensus concern was something that we hear regularly in this day and age, and it is the disruption to the workforce that the rise of robots and AI may bring about. The group, on the whole, was not extraordinarily concerned about this displacement in the near-term. As a number of studies have called out, the rise of digital manufacturing is actually creating many more jobs than it is eliminating; and this is especially true for developed economies.
In places such as the United States, Europe, and Japan, the possibility of eliminating a chunk of the labor-cost input to a digitally manufactured part means that new levels of competitiveness are possible. These more expensive countries still suffer from the need to cover the cost of more expensive real estate on for their plants to sit on. However, the ability of 3D printers—especially to occupy very small spaces while still achieving near peak efficiency—is what mitigates this issue on some level.
Therefore, there is a higher likelihood that the market penetration of these machines has the effect of localizing or at least regionalizing manufacturing and restoring a lot of jobs. This obviously has the counterpoint of potentially preventing less-developed nations from coming up the curve other countries have through serving as a source of low-cost manufacturing labor.
I got the feeling in the room the net good would outweigh the net harm, at least over the next couple of decades. The consensus opinion was that governmental organizations and private organizations—as well as public-private partnerships—could do a lot in the very near future by investing in training and retraining programs to empower a new generation of digital-manufacturing experts. The remarkable opportunities digital manufacturing is opening up will only be realized if we have an educated workforce, capable of understanding and taking full advantage of these technologies.
We dug in on each of the other major thematic areas, but I think that’s enough for one blog. I’m interested to hear if anyone reading this article has their own perspective on the biggest challenges that the rise of digital manufacturing—and especially 3D printing—will bring about in the decades to come. If so, then what they view as the best solutions to addressing these future challenges.