3-D Printing May Return Manufacturing Jobs to the U.S.

By Aliah D. Wright Feb 2, 2015
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What can ​​be made with a 3-D printer?

Cars. Jewelry. High-heeled shoes. Clothing. Houses. Toys. Food. Even body parts.

Some of these items are among the many products American companies now produce overseas to save money. But because those items can be made with 3-D printers at a fraction of what they cost now, experts predict American companies will one day manufacture more goods here than overseas.

HR may be tasked with leading the way in bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. and staffing new ones as a result of the new technology.

3-D printing, experts say, has the potential to change the manufacturing industry completely.

Chuck Hull invented the first 3-D printer more than 30 years ago. The cost? Hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today, a basic 3-D printer, which uses an additive process to print layer upon layer of material to create an object, can be had for slightly less than $2,000. You can see how it works in this video.

According to Gartner, a technology research company, “3-D printer shipments will more than double every year between 2015 and 2018, by which time worldwide shipments are forecast to reach more than 2.3 million.”

Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner, said in a news release that the 3-D printer market is at “an inflection point,” or a time of radical change for business.

3-D Printing and Hiring

Such change may have broad implications on hiring—especially for those in technical fields.

“Those jobs will go to the highly skilled in computer-aided design and engineering,” David Davis, a 3-D developer and independent Philadelphia-based computer programmer, told SHRM Online. Davis uses his 3-D printer to make drones in his spare time.

According to a Harvard Business Review article, “as applications of the technology expand and prices drop, the first big implication is that more goods will be manufactured at or close to their point of purchase or consumption.”

Once that happens, experts say, HR should be prepared to staff the influx of jobs that may come.

“Ultimately, 3-D printing is going to change the landscape of the manufacturing world,” Brent Hale, founder of 3DForged,a3-D printing company, told SHRM Online. “And it will shift jobs back to the U.S. It’s really just a matter of when.”

Experts say those jobs likely will be in the service industry as well as in technical fields.

“These first-order implications will cause businesses all along the supply, manufacturing and retailing chains to rethink their strategies and operations,” the Harvard Business Review article stated. “And a second-order implication will have even greater impact. As 3-D printing takes hold, the factors that have made China the workshop of the world will lose much of their force.”

“With 3-D printing, traditional manufacturing work with materials is mostly being replaced by work with software,” Devin Fidler, research director at the Future of Work Coordination Initiative, added in an interview with SHRM Online.

“The biggest factor in 3-D printing technology bringing jobs back to the U.S.,” Hale added, “is the fact that the technology has the potential to significantly reduce the costs of manufacturing. This, of course, is why manufacturing jobs got shipped overseas in the first place.”

Davis noted that “You are only limited by your imagination and your ability to 3-D design the object. If you can get it into a 3-D design software and you have a large enough printer, then you can print anything.

“It will change the way manufacturing is done in this country because the cost of entry is so low that anyone can obtain a printer, 3-D design their product and push it out to market all from home, Davis added. “Understand also that there are 3-D printing farms where a group of printers are lined up in order to produce more items faster.”

What 3-D Printing Means for HR

“From an HR perspective, it will be a challenge to find experienced and tech-savvy manufacturing leaders that can quickly identify the best methods of design, prototyping, manufacturing and improving products,” K. Alexander Ashe, CEO and founder of the Finio Green Division of Spendology LLC, said in an interview with SHRM Online. His company uses science to improve financial and ecological decision outcomes.

“The challenge is finding the right mix of education, experience and [tech-savviness] with 3-D printing; understanding the trade-offs; and attaining buy-in from management,” Ashe said.

“A businessperson would have to go through the analysis of determining the shipping costs versus the additional labor costs to make a decision on where the jobs should exist,” added Jeremy Ames, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Technology and HR Management Special Expertise Panel.

Then, if jobs are brought back to the U.S., “it is the job of HR—actually, more specifically the talent acquisition team, which in many cases is its own department—to source and recruit those jobs,” said Ames, who is also president and CEO of Hive Tech HR, a Massachusetts-based consultancy.

“Where those people come from would depend on the skill sets required, but I’m thinking we have enough industries that have suffered in recent years, as well as graduates that need jobs, that we’ll be able to come up with the resources,” he added.

Not everyone believes jobs will return as a result of 3-D printing. Many of those jobs will go to entrepreneurs like Davis, working in their own homes printing goods for sale on a much smaller scale.

However, “it’s a great trend, and certainly the U.S. should find a way to lead,” said Bruce Zetler, president of the Inventors Association of Manhattan, which educates, empowers and provides networking opportunities for inventors, startups and entrepreneurs.

“But, like in every other innovation wave, it’s naive to think that any one technology will be our savior,” Zetler added. “Yes, it’s important to have trained engineers, but did [Adobe] Illustrator and Photoshop smarts make us an employment engine?” he asked. “The world is different and diverse. Once the world is exposed to a great technology such as 3-D printing, it will be sure to be re-imagined by everyone.”

Fidler added, “There is also a much greater opportunity for consumers to personalize their products, and so there is a new class of customer service jobs that are starting to emerge around facilitating this. It does indeed look like a new industry, or at least a completely transformed one.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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