Industrial revolution? Maybe

I spoke at the Oak Ridge National Labs about 3D printing and industrial revolution.  Here’s what I said.

The first industrial revolution took root about 200 years ago in England. Steam powered machines were used to pump water out of underground coal mines, dramatically increasing coal mining productivity.  Cheap and abundant coal then made it profitable to run large machines in textile factories.  After a few decades, the manufacture of textiles shifted from cottage industry into factories owned by corporations.

Depending on who you ask, the second industrial revolution was either the wide scale implementation of mass production based on the assembly line in the early 20th century, most notably by the Ford company.   Or, the second industrial revolution was the convergence and rapid improvement of computing and communications technologies beginning in the 1950s that’s still going strong today.

Many people believe that we’re in the early days of a third industrial revolution, one triggered by low-cost design and manufacturing tools and a growing Maker movement.  Here’s how the theory goes.   In the next industrial revolution, manufacturing will come full circle, evolving away from centralized, factory-dominated mass production back to a new era of digital cottage industries.

Some people believe that this looming third industrial revolution will democratize the production and distribution of physical goods.  Manufacturing hubs of small businesses will supply larger companies with inventory which will be stored in digital form as a design file.  3D printed parts and products will be produced just-in-time, locally, shortening global supply chains.  Low-cost customization will spark a newly revitalized economy and the creation of new jobs.

Maybe.  But would such a new manufacturing paradigm really constitute a full-blown industrial revolution?  Part of the challenge in answering this question lies in the use of the phrase “industrial revolution.”

How is the phrase “industrial revolution” defined?  The phrase is defined by the Business Dictionary as “An era of unprecedented technological and economic development that began during 1830s in UK and spread in varying degrees to the rest of Europe, US, and Japan. It replaced the animal and human power by mechanical power and transformed agriculture based economies to manufacturing based ones.”  The Cambridge Business English Dictionary takes a broader view and defines an industrial revolution as “any period of time during which there is a lot of growth in industry or in a particular industry.”

An industrial revolution is a transition, a cultural and economic sea change that’s triggered by a convergence of new technology, social forces, and available natural resources.  Which forces trigger an industrial revolution also depend on who you ask – innovative technologies, social factors, natural resources or a blend of all three.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, some contributing factors were the development of the steam engine, rapid population growth, cheap steel, abundant coal and hydropower.  If you imagine the development of 3D printing technologies in the context of either of these two definitions, then it would seem that reports of a third industrial revolution may be greatly exaggerated.

Maybe we’re not at the brink of a third industrial revolution.  But we are at the brink of a technological leap forward.  This may sound like splitting hairs, but the phrase “industrial revolution” is actually not that useful in a practical context.  In fact, many scholars believe that the phrase is simply a shortcut, a misleading buzz word that oversimplifies the complicated feedback loops that take place when new technologies come together and very gradually accelerate social and economic change.

Here’s the environment in which 3D printing technologies are gaining traction.  These converging forces – a blend of technology and economic factors — are creating a cascade of downstream innovation that’s accelerating in speed.

These converging forces are creating a cascade of downstream innovation that’s accelerating in speed.

  • Massive increases in low-cost computing power
  • Rapidly improving, low-cost design software
  • Hardware components shrinking in size, growing in power and dropping in cost
  • Key additive manufacturing patents are finally expiring
  • High speed internet is everywhere and used for everything
  • Companies are hungry to compress their product design life cycles as they compete in fast-paced global markets
  • Designers are creating increasingly complex products  they demand that they iterate faster, in the privacy of their own design studios (no leaked blueprints)

In this environment of converging forces, 3D printing technologies are feeding a technological leap forward that in turn, feeds and is being fed by a number of converging forces.  The stage has been set for decades.  Significant, noticeable change will take yet decades more.  You could call this convergence of forces an industrial revolution.  Or, not.   For now, I’ll use the phrase “technological leap forward.”

3D printing will bring about significant change in the way we design and produce physical objects.   Here’s why.

Technological leaps forward happen when a significant cost factor drops to nearly zero.  In the first industrial revolution, the cost of power per watt dropped significantly when steam engines replaced horses and water wheels.  More recently, the cost of calculations per second has dropped significantly as computer components have become smaller, faster and cheaper to produce.  There are many more examples of a cost factor dropping significantly, triggering a cascade of downstream innovation and new business models.

3D printing drops several cost factors to nearly zero.   In the book Fabricated, when we interviewed people and thought about 3D printing, we kept coming across some recurring themes, ways in which 3D printing disrupted traditional paradigms of mass manufacturing.   We distilled these recurring core ideas into ten principles of 3D printing.

Each principle describes what makes 3D printing technology unique.  Each principle also demonstrates the removal of a significant cost element that’s associated with traditional mass manufacturing.  Some of these principles hold true today; others will need more time to really develop.

Principle one:  Manufacturing complex shapes costs as much as manufacturing a simple shape.   In traditional manufacturing, the more complicated an object’s shape, the more it costs to make

Principle two:  Variety is free. A single 3D printer can make many shapes. Like a human artisan, a 3D printer can fabricate a different shape each time. In contrast, traditional manufacturing machines are much less versatile and can only make things in a limited spectrum of shapes.

Principle three:  No assembly required. 3D printing can form objects that contain already interlocked parts. The more parts a product contains, the longer it takes to assemble and the more expensive it becomes to make.

Principle four:   Zero lead time. A 3D printer can print on demand, when an object is needed. The capacity for on-the-spot manufacturing reduces the need for companies to stockpile physical inventory. New types of business services become possible as 3D printers enable a business to make specialty–or custom–objects on demand in response to customer orders. .

Principle five:   Unlimited design space. Traditional manufacturing technologies and human artisans can make only a finite repertoire of shapes. A 3D printer removes these barriers and can fabricate shapes that until now have been possible only in nature, opening up vast new design spaces.

Principle six:  Zero skill manufacturing. Traditional manufacturing machines still demand that a skilled expert to adjust and calibrate them. A 3D printer gets most of its guidance from a design file. Unskilled manufacturing opens up new business models and could offer new modes of production for people in remote environments or extreme circumstances.

Principle seven:  Compact, portable manufacturing. Per volume of production space, a 3D printer has more manufacturing capacity than a traditional manufacturing machine. For example, an injection molding machine can only make objects significantly smaller than itself. In contrast, a 3D printer can fabricate objects as large or larger than itself.

Principle eight:  Less waste by-product. 3D printing in metal creates less waste by-product than the traditional grinding or molding techniques used in mass manufacturing.  Machining metal is highly wasteful as an estimated 90 percent of the original metal gets ground off and ends up on the factory floor.

Principle nine:  Infinite shades of materials. Combining different raw materials into a single product is difficult using today’s manufacturing machines. As multi-material 3D printing develops, we will gain the capacity to blend and mix different raw materials. New previously inaccessible blends of raw material offer us a much larger, mostly unexplored palette of materials that have novel properties or useful types of behaviors.

Principle ten:   Precise physical replication. A digital music file can be endlessly copied with no loss of audio quality. In the future, 3D printing will extend this digital precision and repeatability to the world of physical objects.

Today, we’re in the dawn of 3D printing technology.  The development and improvement of  3D printing and related technologies will continue to accelerate.  As significant manufacturing costs are reduced to nearly zero, in the coming years,  we may witness a third industrial revolution.


  1. Michael GreenGold says

    05.02.2013 > Thursday > 3D Printing & Next Industrial Revolution? Maybe…Great thoughts from Melba Kurman…Keep an open mind…Great to be on front-end of 3D printing technology revolution!!!…>>> Michael…

  2. colin webster says

    I enjoyed the read and will come back to this for that very useful list of principles for 3D printing. This is certainly the best article I’ve read on 3D printing.

    However, I wonder if you agree with me you overlook a change in manufacturing – away from a linear model of production towards a circular system? Printing products that require no assembly implies they cannot be disassembled, which implies they will ultimately be wasted. This means the business has to pay out again for materials and the energy required to process them, a not inconsiderable cost. Remanufacturing requires much less energy- 75% less in some cases.

    Equally, amalgamating materials in the way you suggest presumably leaves them useless at end of life.

    I see 3D printing as an enabling technology for a circular economy, a technology which allows manufacturers and individuals to infinitely customise products, and to build products up on a modular basis for disassembly, upgrade, repair and repurposing when the time comes.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on those of mine.

    Thank you again,


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