3D printing: A game changer for manufacturing?

Three-dimensional printing could change how and where commercial manufacturing takes place.

The technology, which is also referred to as additive manufacturing, has existed for decades, but has been gaining attention recently as it matures and becomes more affordable, according to CBC News. The machine creates physical objects from digital files by layering materials like plastic, metal or ceramic. The process is much faster than traditional methods and can more easily accommodate smaller orders. Nigel Southway​, the Toronto chair of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, described how North American producers could benefit greatly from the technology.

"You want a part, we make a part," he said. "You break a part, we make a part. It will allow us to collapse inventory and be closer to the customer."

Because manufacturers would have an easier time creating parts there could be less dependence on imports from China. More domestic manufacturing can lead to a stronger market and higher availability of jobs.

Enthusiasm for 3-D printing has been widely shared by investors. According to Forbes, the five publicly traded 3-D printing companies have witnessed "irrational exuberance" with their stock prices and the market it finding more competitors. Hewlett-Packard is a among the companies hoping to enter the market soon.

As affordability grows even higher, 3-D printing could boost innovation in domestic manufacturing. More small firms could see their ideas put to life. The technology, however, is just a single piece in the U.S. manufacturing puzzle.

One of many new prospects
The recent boom in manufacturing can be attributed to the lower cost of energy due to America's heightened production of oil and natural gas, according to Forbes. Shale hydrocarbon production has reduced oil imports by 45 percent and contributed over $400 billion a year to the U.S. economy. While the new energy economy has created many extraction jobs, particularly in oil-rich Texas, it has also led to a renaissance of energy-intensive manufacturing across the country. Improved conditions resulting from the boom could have a ripple effect that causes many industries to skyrocket.

The greater availability of supplies and growth in the skilled labor force could help less energy-intensive manufacturers thrive, according to Forbes. Three-dimensional printing is just one new process that could become more commonplace.

Manufacturers in all industries should consider how new innovations could allow them to expand. If companies are set back by labor shortages they should consult manufacturing recruiters to streamline the process of hiring talented and experienced employees.