Even as politicians promise to bring back the manufacturing jobs lost to foreign factories, there’s a new promise that suggests a second industrial revolution is underway in America that will produce home-grown micro-factories instead.
That’s the gist of recent reporting on the commercialization of 3-D printing technology and other scientific advances.
Columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote earlier this month about his visit to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory where whole car bodies and car parts are being “printed” on giant 3-D printers at its demonstration facility. Parts for all kinds of applications can be designed and tested on computers and then sent to the printer, Friedman reported, thus greatly reducing the length of time and costs of production.
An Oak Ridge official told Friedman that the beauty of 3-D printing is that any community can now go into the manufacturing business.
Really? I called Jim Hill, executive director of the La Crosse Area Development Corporation, to see who is using 3-D printing locally. He referred me to Nick Altoff, owner of Northstar Composite Solutions LLC, located in LADCO’s business incubator.
Altoff has used his printer to manufacture a model of a car bicycle rack, a process from computer design to finished product that took just a couple of days.
He works with the application of composite technology to products such as his rack, which he plans to produce commercially. Initially, the 3-D printer will produce only the models, but he envisions future 3-D production as the prices of 3-D printers are coming down and the strength of composite materials increases.
Hod Lipson, a mechanical engineer who has a lab at Cornell University and has written extensively about 3-D printing, has identified it as the core of a second industrial revolution. “Additive manufacturing” as it is known, he said in an article online in 2011, can print objects out of almost any material: nylon, titanium, chocolate and foods, as well as the composites Altoff works with. Lipson wrote that “Soon anyone will be able to make complex products quickly and cheaply, something that will democratize innovation and unleash human creativity.” Since that time, for example, progress has been reported in printing human body parts. He had invited readers to think of a process so complex that it could create a replacement spinal-disc implant “exactly tailored for your bad back.”
Friedman quotes the Oak Ridge official saying over the last 100 years the U.S. went from decentralized artisan-based manufacturing to centralized mass manufacturing on assembly lines, saying, “Today with these emerging technologies we can go back to artisans, which will be great for local communities that spawn a leadership and workers able to take advantage of these emerging technologies.”
This was the week that President Donald Trump stressed the importance of workforce development, which is not a new concern. An editorial in the Onalaska Community Life and Holmen Courier newspapers in 2000 stressed the importance of economic development focused on the development of technology-oriented jobs that push up wages as a state report had recommended.
The report, co-authored by Joel Rogers of the Center on Wisconsin Strategies, said the strong state economy at the time was masking a growing income inequality to which the low-paying jobs created in the retail sector contributed. Rogers said at the time that “one of the many things that make Wisconsin a great place to live and work is that we don’t have the gross inequalities that mark other states. That’s a precious thing, which I’d really hate to see us lose.”
Since then, Wisconsin has joined the slide into income inequality with 27 percent of the workforce in poverty level jobs, according to the most recent State of Working Wisconsin report produced by the Center for Wisconsin Strategies. Rogers was one of the authors who noted that in 2001, one-in-four students in Wisconsin public schools were economically disadvantaged. By 2013, that number nearly doubled to 43 percent.
Friedman sees a path for communities and regions to turn this around if they provide the support needed to take advantage of the new industrial revolution technologists see. It’s a challenge this region, with its great education, business community and environment can meet. Friedman again: “Show me a community that understands today’s world and is working together to thrive within it, and I’ll show you a community on the rise — coastal or interior, urban or rural.”