How 3-D Printing Will Make Manufacturing in America Great Again

3D-printed models of Marvin, the 3D Hubs mascot, are seen at the 3D Hubs office in Amsterdam. United Photos/Reuters

If the folks at 3D Hubs are right, presidential candidates can stop fulminating about bringing back manufacturing from China or Bangladesh or wherever.

Technology will render such a shift inevitable. In the next decade, the whole business dynamic that makes it a good idea for a lot of U.S. companies to manufacture overseas will go poof. The very concept of a big honkin' factory will eventually become as anachronistic as a typing pool.

Instead, companies are going to custom-make most things in small factories right in your neighborhood or town, close enough so you could go pick up your stuff, or maybe have it dropped onto your porch by a drone. Factories will essentially get broken up, scattered and made local. As 3D Hubs co-founder Bram de Zwart puts it, "Why would you put a thousand machines in one place when you can put one machine in a thousand places?"

Such is the promise of "distributed manufacturing." The World Economic Forum last year named it one of the most important technology trends to watch. It is expected to have a mighty impact on jobs, geopolitics and the climate. And while massive distributed factories might seem a little far-fetched in 2016, a handful of companies are starting to make it happen.

3D Hubs, a startup based in Amsterdam and New York, is one of them. Its business today doesn't look like an all-out threat to China's global domination of manufacturing. It is just a network connecting industrial-grade 3-D printers, about 28,000 of them in 156 countries. If you happen to have a 3-D design you want made, you can go on the 3D Hubs platform, find a nearby printer that can handle your requirements, upload the file and then drive over to get the finished product.

So saying 3D Hubs will be the world's biggest factory is sort of like calling Airbnb the world's biggest hotel, which is to say that you can see it that way while squinting after several shots of tequila. 3-D printers have come a long way in the past few years, but they're still limited in what they can produce. The bulk of 3D Hubs's business now is making prototypes for architects and designers—about 30,000 3-D prints a month.

Still, de Zwart paints a compelling picture of where this is heading. 3-D printers are improving rapidly, getting cheaper and spreading like crazy, as is often the case with new technology. Siemens predicts that 3-D printing will get 50 percent cheaper and five times faster in the next five years. Gartner Group figures the 3-D printing market, just $1.6 billion in 2015, will rocket to $13.4 billion by 2018.

And the technology keeps getting more sophisticated, able to make ever more complex products. It's not out of the question that, before long, 3-D printers will be able to make a good sneaker.

A new company is trying to bring the share economy to 3-D printing, and in the process bring manufacturing back to the US from China. Eric Vidal/Reuters

"I want to work with a company like Nike and move manufacturing to where the demand is," de Zwart says. Imagine what that would mean. Today, Nike manufactures most of its shoes in China, Indonesia and other Asian countries. This makes sense because labor is a huge part of the cost of making a shoe, and labor is far cheaper in much of Asia than in Western countries. To achieve economies of scale, Nike operates huge factories that churn out shoes in anticipation of demand and ships them to retailers all over the planet, and the retailers then sell some shoes to customers and throw out the rest. In this model, the enormous waste and transportation costs are worth it.

Now consider how that model changes if any Nike shoe could be economically printed in, say, 20 minutes. Stores would become showrooms with no inventory. No shoe would be made until it's ordered, and once that's done, the design would be sent to a printer near the customer's home, ready for same-day pickup or delivery. Waste, gone. Transportation costs, gone. Need for cheap overseas labor to staff giant factories, gone.

Factories will be small enterprises located near centers of demand. A company like Nike would focus on design and marketing, and certify 3-D printing operations to guarantee quality and uniformity. Since 3-D designs could be altered as easily as we now change typefaces on a PowerPoint slide, customers could customize shoes before they're made.

(Some experts predict we'll have these 3-D printers in our homes. But considering that these printers would have to be large to make shoes—or chairs—and they'd have to be fed raw materials, it seems that the kind of person who will have such a 3-D printer at home is the kind of person who today has a metal lathe at home.)

In the distributed manufacturing scenario, the carbon footprint, so to speak, of each shoe drops precipitously. Asian manufacturing is toast, probably upsetting the global balance of power. And factory jobs—well, they're likely never coming "back." 3-D printing automates a lot of what factory workers would've done. The hope is that distributed manufacturing creates a whole new set of opportunities for middle-class workers and keeps money local instead of funneling it overseas.

Distributed manufacturing will happen gradually—until it happens suddenly, as things go with tech waves. It will start with simple items, like one-piece spare parts, and move up in complexity and value.

But it's going to happen. A flurry of startups are already at it. AtFAB is a company that makes Ikea-like furniture designs that can be sent to CNC routers, local machines that are the woodworking cousins of 3-D printers. SyncFab is a 3-D printing network somewhat like 3D Hubs. Shapeways, CloudFab and others are hovering around the same business model. Meanwhile, giants such as Siemens and General Electric have become big backers of networked 3-D printing.

In most ways, U.S. technology and U.S. companies lead the race to distributed manufacturing. Any politician who says we're "losing" to China could instead help shape a future that makes that nation's manufacturing prowess as irrelevant as the Last Emperor.