Manufacturing in 3-D

Three-dimensional printing could be the next big economic engine.
by | April 2013
 

Youngstown, Ohio -- It’s a long journey from being the namesake city in Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 lament for the working class -- They built a blast furnace/Here along the shore/The story’s always the same/Seven hundred tons of metal a day/Now sir you tell me the world’s changed -- to the home of what President Obama calls a “state-of-the-art lab where new workers are mastering 3-D printing that could revolutionize how we make almost everything.”

Youngstown is the pilot location for what may become a network of 15 manufacturing hubs. The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute is dedicated to developing 3-D printing -- the manufacturing of a three-dimensional solid object of almost any shape from a digital model -- into a mainstream industry. Additive manufacturing, which can enable the rapid production of low-volume products, holds the promise of being an economic engine.

Read the April issue of Governing magazine.

In fact, it’s expected to be a big part of the next generation in manufacturing, which also includes the rapidly growing field of robotics and other automation elements. The ROI, however, is the exchange of technology for labor. The manufacturing sector has shed 5.6 million jobs -- or 32 percent of the total -- since 2000, but productivity, thanks largely to automation, has increased 44 percent in the same timeframe.

Manufacturing now accounts for only 8 percent of the labor market, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or, if you prefer, 6 percent as calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau. But those small numbers still carry significant clout.

A new report released by the Brookings Institution points to the disproportionate impact of manufacturing on the U.S. jobs market. It employs 35 percent of engineers, accounts for more than two-thirds of private-sector spending on research and development, and produces fully 65 percent of all U.S. trade. “After 30 years of being told that the U.S. was resigned to be a post-industrial economy,” write Bruce Katz and Peter Hamp, “we are suddenly realizing that our future lies in the interplay of production and innovation, and of domestic markets and global demand.”

“Manufacturing matters because it’s simply impossible to have a vibrant national economy without a healthy, globally traded sector,” says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “And manufacturing is America’s most important traded sector.”

Atkinson is buoyed by the Obama administration’s call for a network of manufacturing hubs. If and when they become fully formed, the hubs could be remembered as a signature achievement at the intersection of jobs, innovation and trade. Still, Atkinson says the federal effort remains well short of what the country needs, which he describes as “meaningful innovation-based investment in conjunction with the states, massive cuts in corporate taxes, a national strategy for innovation-based manufacturing and a major effort to level the playing field when it comes to mercantilist practices” by trading partners and other national governments.

States and localities have a vital role in thinking locally about trading globally. Atkinson argues that they can bring geographically focused knowledge and commitments to manufacturing, but worries that state and local government often see their choices only in terms of “going it alone or looking at themselves as passive recipients of what happens in Washington.” He wonders whether they’re ceding their own interests by not making a “real effort to lobby for a true national growth and innovation agenda.”

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