The next big thing?

 

“The relentless parade of new technologies is unfolding on many fronts. Almost every advance is billed as a breakthrough, and the list of ‘next big things’ grows ever longer. Not every emerging technology will alter the business or social landscape — but some truly do have the potential to disrupt the status quo, alter the way people live and work, and rearrange value pools. It is therefore critical that business and policy leaders understand which technologies will matter to them and prepare accordingly.”

— from “Disruptive technologies: advances that will transform life, business and the global economy,” a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, May 2013.

Technology is as fascinating for its social implications as its material accomplishments. McKinsey’s choice of the word “disruptive” rather than “transformational” to describe this and other new technologies is felicitous as well as accurate.

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Harold King, executive vice president of the Council of Industry, the 120-member manufacturers’ association of the Hudson Valley, knows as much about what the region’s manufacturers are doing as anybody. King, a longtime New Paltz resident with a Newburgh office, has been in his job for more than two decades. For insight into the future of manufacturing, King recommended a report issued last month by McKinsey Global Institute, research arm of the well-known management consulting firm.

McKinsey’s report listed 12 transformative technologies, including 3-D printing, which was touted at a meeting at SUNY New Paltz on May 30. The other eleven were mobile internet, the automation of knowledge work, the internet of things [machine-to-machine devices], cloud technologies, advanced robotics, near-autonomous vehicles, next-generation genomics, energy storage, advanced materials, advanced oil and gas exploration and recovery, and renewable energy.

Wrote King in an email, “Many of these are things Hudson Valley manufacturers are well positioned to capitalize on.” Because Hudson Valley manufacturing went through the changes wrought by the revolution in technology earlier than other New York regions, King argued, the remaining firms are more adept at understanding and preparing for further technological change.

Like the state and the nation, Ulster County and the Hudson Valley have been steadily losing manufacturing jobs. According to the state labor department, Ulster County had 3,200 manufacturing jobs in April, as compared to 5,300 in April of 10 years ago and 5,700 20 years ago. Orange and Dutchess counties had 17,900 manufacturing jobs this April, 25,300 10 years ago and 34,800 20 years ago (the new IBM layoffs of 697 Dutchess employees don’t improve the picture). In New York State as a whole, the number of manufacturing has dropped in the past 20 years from 833,400 to 445,000.

Appropriately, the New Paltz event at which the announcement about the initiative in 3D printing was made, attended by more than 300 people, was called “The Next Big Thing Breakfast Series.”

“From fabricating radical new sneaker designs to manufacturing incredibly light prosthetic limbs, 3D printing is generating exciting new products and new jobs with the click of a button,” declared the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation (HVEDC) website on the subject. “3D printing is a multi-billion-dollar business that’s revolutionizing the world around us … Hudson Valley 3D Printing (HV3D) brings together a community of 3D printing experts, private and public investors, academics and entrepreneurs to unleash the full potential of this technology for the benefit of the Hudson Valley.”

Exactly what does 3D printing do? It copies physical objects. It utilizes additive manufacturing techniques to create objects by printing layers of material based on digital models. Websites like thingiverse — a universe of things — gives some idea of the diversity of such objects.

The 3D printing initiative will bring not only equipment but also expertise and curriculum there’ll be a new certificate program at New Paltz to provide students with hands-on training. “Because of this coordinated effort,” said HVEDC President Laurence Gottlieb, “students now will be challenged and grow in a new, dynamic industry, and entrepreneurs will have a willing business entity with financial resources if they are utilizing 3D technology in their businesses.”

According to the HVEDC, worldwide sales of 3D printing products and services could reach $3.7 billion in two years and exceed $6.5 billion by 2019. McKinsey, which reported that personal 3D printers are already available for less than $1000, sees the overall economic impact of the industry as from $230 billion to $550 billion by 2025. Perhaps 100,000 of the machines were purchased last year.

Unpredictable effects

No one, not just the good folks at SUNY and HVEDC and their supporters, can accurately forecast where 3D printing might be going. As Karl Marx explained more than a century and a half ago, changes in modes of production resulting from technology disrupt existing patterns of social relations in unexpected and often unpredictable ways.

“Neither technology skeptics nor optimists can predict the future,” the McKinsey report warned. “Technologies and innovations are diffused and adopted at unpredictable rates. Wholly unanticipated applications may arise and become dominant, while the most obvious potential uses may not pan out. Moreover, when technologies are commercialized and widely used, the ways in which their impacts are measured can provide a distorted picture.”

How do these warnings apply to 3D printing? McKinsey sketches a cultural shift the bare outlines of which are just emerging. Here’s what might — or might not — happen:

“Access to 3D printers is already inspiring a ‘maker’ subculture in which enthusiasts share designs and ideas. For example, the 3D printing service Shapeways already has more than 10,000 crowd-sourced 3D models for jewelry and other items that have been uploaded by consumers. 3D printing could eventually spawn the same kind of dynamic, complex ecosystem that exists in software and web development — in which developers can easily share and collaborate with one another — extending this kind of innovation ecosystem to the creation of physical objects. Budding product designers and entrepreneurs can use 3D printing to quickly reach a mass, even global, audience. Makers of 3D printing devices and service providers should consider how best to stake out the most favorable positions within this ecosystem, whether by establishing a brand for consumer 3D printers, establishing a marketplace for 3D designs, or opening go-to 3D print shops (either online or in brick-and-mortar locations).”

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