Ericsson is sponsoring a new website called “2020 — Shaping Ideas.” The site will feature short videos that present the ideas and predictions of twenty significant thinkers regarding the year 2020. Areas covered include technology, economics, social trends, media, etc. Some of the people featured include Jeffrey Sachs on fighting poverty, Carlota Perez on economics and Ian Pearson on future technologies.
I was asked to comment on some of the videos, and I thought I would start with a fascinating presentation on the the “Rep Rap” machine — a personal-scale 3D printer that is cabable of replicating itself. (A 3D printer is a device that is able to automatically fabricate solid objects by building up successive layers of material.) The Rep Rap machine is the invention of Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.
Dr. Bowyer’s vision is that we all might one day own a personal 3D printer and use it to fabricate products. If the technology were to indeed follow that path, one can imagine a world in which physical products become much like digital products today. In other words, all the value would be in the intellectual property—presumably people would need to pay for a license to the design specifications, but the cost of actually creating the product would be minimal. Many technologists believe that if you carry that tend far enough into the future, advanced nanotechnology would come into play, and it might be possible to literatally assemble materials and objects through molecular construction or self-replication. That could conceivably result in something like the “materializer” on Star Trek.
Personally, I’m a bit skeptical that things will go that way, and almost certainly not in the near term. I suspect that technologies like 3D printing are more likely to have a high impact in the commercial arena for the simple reason that small, inexpensive machines are unlikely to be competitive with leading edge, commercial grade machines. There is, of course, also the problem of assembling the parts into a working machine once you have fabricated them.
Nonetheless, I think technologies like 3D printing are likely to have a transformative effect on manufacturing, especially when combined with other forms of automation, such as robotic assembly. In the video, Dr. Bowyer asks, “What happens if we destroy all of manufacturing?” While I don’t think that’s a major concern in the foreseeable future, I am a lot less sanguine than Dr. Dowyer about the potential impact on employment. As technologies like this continue to advance relentlessly, there is clearly a point at which the participation of human workers in the production process will essentially be eliminated. The economic impact of that transformation is difficult to overstate—especially in low-wage developing countries heavily geared toward manufacturing.
In my book, The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, I argue that technology is likely to transform manufacturing and ultimately perhaps even reverse globalization for manufactured goods. As factories begin to approach full automation and labor costs fall to near zero levels, the savings that come from locating in a low wage country are likely to be outweighed by the transportation costs associated with moving products to market. That will be especially true if, as many analysts predict, oil production peaks and energy costs escalate significantly in the future.
If that scenario unfolds, it seems quite possible that manufacturing will see a “jobless repatriation” where highly flexible automated production facilities are built close markets in order to minimize transportation costs. That would have dire consequences for employment, especially in countries like China.
Most economists, like Dr. Dowyer, don’t seem to be espeically concerned about this trend. They assume that if manufacturing jobs disappear, workers will find jobs in other areas—most likely in the service sector, where jobs “can’t be automted.” The problem with that is that jobs in the service sector can and will be automated. After all, a sufficiently advanced automation software or artificial intelligence application is essentially a “3D printer” for the service sector—and for many jobs it may actually represent a lower technical hurdle. If you really think through the implications of advancing technology it becomes pretty clear that there really aren’t many employment sectors that will be protected in the long run.