53D Printing: The 21st Century Gutenberg Press

A research paper indexing 3D printing’s (and, by extension, additive manufacturing’s) potential to disrupt organizations from an economic standpoint.



The advent of 3D printers in this past decade have led to an unbalanced adoption of the technology in both commercial and residential applications. While the penetration of 3D printing practices have faced resistance, implementing the technology has the potential to increase the efficiency of individual industries and catapult the United States as a whole towards a more sustainable and productive future. The implementation of 3D printing does require shifts in the labor force makeup as well as proactive decision making on the part of select corporations. This paper will outline the impact 3D printing could have on various industries, as well as the macro-effects on the United States and, to a lesser extent, the global economy.


Technology has the inherent ability to revolutionize the way societies operate – the steam engine brought about the Industrial Revolution, the compass unlocked the Age of Discovery, and the Gutenberg printing press exponentially increased the production of literature and eventually enabled the Protestant Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment (Andrews). Gutenberg’s printing press expedited the distribution of ideas as the sheer operational efficiency and power of his printing press reduced printing times by 40 times, while reducing the costs of books at the same time (Hock). In many ways, 3D printers today present similar – if not more – social and economic benefits compared to Gutenberg’s press in the mid-15th century.

3D printing arrives in a time of slumping productivity; various studies have highlighted the decreasing productivity growth among more developed countries (MDC). Attempts to explain the “productivity paradox” have revolved around lags in benefits from new technology and flawed implementations (Brynjolfsson). Currently, 3D printing has suffered from the latter hypothesis; without innovation within industry structures and practices themselves, 3D printing’s potential is starved and will remain a niche production method.

Industry/Sector Disruptions


Perhaps the most obvious application of 3D printing lays in the manufacturing sector. 3D printing operates on the “additive manufacturing” platform, meaning the manufacturing process is done through layered fabrication. Traditionally, the sector has relied on extensive tooling shops that would produce parts by either sculpting a block of material or through molds – both processes require excessive resources (residual material, large machinery) and extensive time (Manufacturing Process). Additive manufacturing, on the other hand, introduces efficiencies in all stages of the manufacturing process: design, production, and implementation.

3D printing’s low-cost characteristic enables manufacturers to partake in “rapid prototyping.” Rapid prototyping is, as its name suggests, the ability to draft and test prototypes in a manner that is much quicker than typically possible. Within a few hours, a design team can have a tangible prototype in their hands for assessment. The benefit of streamlined prototyping is particularly prevalent for automotive manufactures. In an industry constrained by cost and price pressure, achieving operational excellence is paramount (Thewihsen). 3D printing provides a method for design and development teams to experiment with various designs at a low cost; this novel level of cost-effective testing could catalyze innovation among manufacturers.

In addition to rapid prototyping, 3D printing also reduces friction within production lines. 3D printing’s power in this area stems from its lightweight platform. 3D printing eliminates the necessity for manufacturers to have specialized plants – with just an electronic blueprint, manufacturers can produce a part nearly anywhere in the world. By expanding possible areas of production, manufacturers are able to consolidate their vertical supply chain and reduce costs of transportation and limit wasted resources.

The most significant benefit 3D printing brings to the manufacturing sector is the quality of the final product. 3D printed products are lighter and stronger than their traditionally-produced counterparts. Welded parts, in particular, are potential weak points, something additive manufacturing replaces (Thewihsen). In industries like aerospace or defense, the weight-to- strength ratio of 3D printing presents massive value; this new value also benefits their customers. For airline companies, any amount of weight reduction saves them vast amounts of fuel and money.


With the increased manufacturing activity, there becomes a need for supply chains to adapt. The current logistics industry operates under three modes: air, sea, and ground; since products can be created with just a 3D printing and a computer file, 3D printing introduces a fourth mode of transportation. 3D printing, as the fourth modality, threatens a major portion of revenue for logistics companies as corporations could forgo shipping completed components entirely in favor of sending an AutoCAD file for it to be printed closer to the desired destination. UPS generated $13.5 billion in revenue in 2019 from freight shipments alone – nearly a fifth of their total revenue (Mazareanu). If manufacturers forgo the traditional three modes in favor of the forth, corporations like UPS will have to find new methods of providing value.

Resource Industry

An industry incredibly restricted by the availability of machinery, mining and other resource-acquisition corporations will reap the rewards from 3D printing. The resource industry frequently operates in remote locations and spare parts are scarce. With 3D printing technology, suppliers will be able to replace broken parts with minimal lag. The ability to print parts on demand also removes the costs associated with storing spare parts (Thewihsen). Operators within the resource industry can capitalize on the reduced transportation costs of acquiring spare parts, which ultimately reduces the price of their products for consumers.

Healthcare Industry

3D printing has already shone its potential in the healthcare industry. In the past half- decade, 3D printing has led to noteworthy leaps have been in the quality of treatments. The accuracy and flexibility of 3D printing permits doctors to create personalized prosthetics, highly- specialized equiptment (pacemakers, hearth valves), and organic material (synthetic ears, etc). An especially potent application of 3D printing in healthcare is producing neural systems and organs on a chip. Aptly-named “brain-on-a-chip” or “organ-on-a-chip,” researchers can test and observe new drugs and treatments on a living chip (Johnson). Removing the requirement of human trials decreases the associated costs and risks; pharmaceutical companies and their patients will benefit from the higher quality of available treatments.

Domestic Economic Impacts

Labor force

The American labor force will harbor the direct externalities of extensive adoption of 3D printing practices. As of 2019, the vast majority of American workers are employed in the tertiary, or service, sector (DeSilver). Although this behavioural segment is relatively insulated from the impact of 3D printing due to the reduced value proposition 3D printing introduces to the tertiary sector, a particular group of service workers may experience increased demand.

To implement 3D printing, corporations will require material engineers, mechanical engineers (primarily for AutoCAD), as well as service technicians. Assuming that 3D printing will be adopted across the nation, the demand for these positions will increase. The recent diasporic trend of incomes between college-educated and non college-educated will only perpetuate as corporations place more value on highly-skilled labor. Service technicians, overseeing the seamless operation of 3D printings, will see a similar increase. President Trump’s recent $1.2 billion-a-year technical-education stipend will assist in growing a supply of technicians capable of managing 3D printings (Meckler).

The ability to print desired products in countless new locations creates demand for low to mid-range transportation. Regardless of whether automated vehicles will replace the trucking workforce, 3D printing will require fleets of delivery workers that can fulfill shorter trips.

Economies of scale – no more

Corporations have long functioned under the premise that efficiency is tied to scale; the concept of “economies of scale” has materialized into gargantuan, record-breaking factories as corporations seek to decrease production costs. 3D printing has the ability to transform the modern corporate model by allowing for nimble production processes. The low barriers-to-entry for implementing 3D printing place the bargaining power in favor of buyers. Historically, suppliers have leveraged the massive human and financial capital requirements of manufacturing to drive revenue; however, 3D printing offers buyers an in-house method.


Taking the domestic impacts into account, 3D printing could drastically affect the United States’ gross domestic product. Corporations that provide products will find the various advantages of 3D printing more appealing than continuing to outsource their manufacturing. Manufacturing will return to the United States alongside increased investment. This increase in GNP will primarily stem from the reduction of imports and increase of exports.

Global Effects

3D printing technology presents a duality of opportunity and threat for less developed countries (LDC). Similar to the benefits 3D printing brings product development teams, the technology could jumpstart innovation in LDCs.

Empowering the economies of LDCs is critical for their growth as LDCs will suffer greatly from losing their competitive advantage in manufacturing – corporations will no longer be tied to regions with low labor costs as 3D printing is a cheaper alternative. Economists have long heralded manufacturing as the stepping-stone for LDCs to industrialize themselves, and the potential of premature deindustrialization could wreak havoc on already-fragile economies.
(Works Cited)

Research Paper / 2020
Written for Professor Joseph Foudy, Economics and Global Business