A Glimpse into which future? COVID-19, 3D printing and work

The COVID-19 pandemic has been refocusing attention on manufacturing and the supply chains connecting producers and consumers. The temporary disruption and removal of human labour from our production systems resulted in unprecedented impacts on the ability of many manufacturers to make and distribute goods. Supply chains have been disrupted, and in some cases permanently ruptured. In responding to the crisis, national government efforts to ensure rapid and consistent supplies of medical equipment and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) have been fraught with challenges. In this context, 3D printing has received particular attention due to the capabilities of the technology to provide rapid solutions. It also conveniently fits the prevailing narrative that the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ will enable us to realise a sustainable, ‘inclusive and human-centred future’. As Sam Kinsley asserted in a past contribution to Futures of Work, the development and adoption of technology and the construction of technological futures is politicised, with the agenda driven by a number of actors including industry and governments, as Andrew Sturdy and Glenn Morgan have argued here before. However, the spotlight shone on 3D printing by the pandemic has served to highlight some ongoing problems with how industry, policy makers and consumers understand 3D printing technologies and tensions and contradictions in the possible futures currently being narrated.

3D printing is not new – stereolithography was invented by Chuck Hall in 1986. It is the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data. This is additive (layer upon layer) rather than using traditional subtractive manufacturing technologies. The advantages are numerous. Prints can be made in a relatively short time and with low costs, avoiding the long processes of conventional fabrication methods. As a result, the technology has been heralded as transformative, marking a radical departure in how goods are designed and manufactured. The huge reduction in the time from design to production over conventional methods, and the rapid rate of innovation and iterations of design, have caused commentators to describe the technology as ‘game changing’ and creating an era in which ‘everything becomes science fiction’. Existing academic literature on 3D printing focuses on development of 3D printing as a technology, with comparatively less discussion of its impacts, particularly on work.

The view of 3D printing as a futuristic enabler of social and technological revolution is multi-faceted, with two often contradictory narratives framing discussions on possible future directions. First is the use of 3D printing in industrial manufacturing (also termed ‘additive manufacturing’) in which the future of work is embedded in debates around the automation of manufacturing. Second is the association of 3D printing with the Maker Movement, based on the use of 3D printing in makerspaces, particularly FabLabs and other digital fabrication spaces. Despite having the same technological drivers – rapid innovation and customisable production – these two possible futures are simultaneously being presented to us. This is of particular relevance to those interested in work futures, as the implications for labour are profound (but different) in each scenario.

3D printing has long held a significant place in manufacturing, albeit primarily in rapid prototyping. Over the last decade, significant progress has been made in the expansion of the use of 3D printing in other manufacturing functions (jigs, fittings, on the production line), in the manufacturing of final use products (particularly in dentistry and hearing aids), and in spare part production. With dentistry, some medical implants and hearing aids, the technology provides fast, individualised production using complex geometries, replacing traditional manufacturing methods. Typically, however, the use of 3D printing is alongside traditional manufacturing. As such, the impact of the use of the technology on labour is often subsumed in the public and policy-making imaginary of Industry 4.0 and the fully automated ‘Factory of the Future’.

3D printing is integral to the Factory of the Future helping to enable modular, automated manufacturing facilities, connected and controlled through big data and the ‘Internet of Things’. In this narrative the human is decentred, rendered invisible behind the shiny façade of the clean factory equipment. The manufacturing industry talks of the ‘man and the dog’. The dog is present to keep the man awake and the man is there to feed the dog. This illustrates the emptiness and lack of humanity in the Factory of the Future and overlooks the labour that will be required to design the products, maintain the equipment and facilities, and manage the data generated by production. COVID-19 has highlighted the vulnerability and precarity of human labour, thereby encouraging the narrative of the automated factory. The full realisation of digital 3D printing removes the human footprint on products until consumption (scan, design, send file, print, dispatch). Debates around automation tell us that machine automation doesn’t necessarily reduce work for humans – it can change the nature of work and in some cases intensify it. Within industrial 3D printing human labour will still clearly be needed in the design and maintenance of the machines as part of any factory of the future. Currently, additive manufacturing is still far from being automated, relying on banks of PhD qualified staff to develop, test, install and maintain machines. It also currently complements traditional methods rather than replacing them, reducing our ability to quantify or qualify the impact on manual labour.

In addition to playing a role in Industry 4.0, 3D printing has concurrently been charged with helping to ‘relocalise’ manufacturing, to ‘correct’ the new international division of labour by ‘reshoring’ manufacturing from low cost locations ‘back’ to advanced economies. Here, political institutions, which, as Guy Mundlak and Judy Fudge noted in the last issue of Futures of Work, play a role in shaping how technologies are developed and their future trajectories, are constructing 3D printing as a ‘neutral’ mechanism to achieve political ambitions. It would appear that the technology is assumed to be able to play a significant role in two ways. First, to enable manufacturing in advanced economies by reducing the input of labour and reducing production stages. Second, to reduce dependency on international supply chains that are considered problematic to protectionist economic policy makers. The contrast here is that the political rhetoric involves relocation of manufacturing jobs, not a reduction in jobs. It also fails to address the logic of 3D printing being able to decentralise the means of production to consumers either in their homes or close by in dedicated facilities. Rather, the narrative conceives of additive manufacturing as a part of traditional production systems rather than as a challenge to them, and in consequence does not consider the potential impacts on human labour and the geographies of that work.

In the second narrative of 3D printing, embedded within the Maker Movement, the future of the technology and human labour looks rather different. In comparison to the invisibility of the labour force in the industrial narrative, this localised, decentralised vision is squarely focused on the human. The technology allows the collapse of the distinctions between producer and consumer (sometimes termed ‘prosumer’). Individuals are able to design, share and produce products as digital files, then print and use the product. This is inherently the same process as in industrial manufacturing, but the context and purpose of the production is significantly different. Much greater emphasis is placed on the ability of the technology to dominate over traditional methods, to the extent that existing production systems change, with 3D printing not just substituting for transport but decoupling transport from object procurement. Such a vision is a radical overhaul of the current system of consumption, both in terms of profit-making and of imagining demand in consumer markets.

This vision is egalitarian, localised, decentralised and emotional, invoking romantic notions of artisan production. It is highly creative and human, with 3D printing technology enabling not only customised production but also individual creativity and innovation. In this vision the ‘maker’ is empowered and central to the process – directly in contrast to the sterile vision of industrial 3D printing. Production systems are directly disrupted and relocalised to the scale of a small urban area or home setting. This narrative also connects to the open source agenda and the sharing economy, further pushing back against the capitalist status quo (see however work challenging assumptions of sharing in makerspaces).

During COVID-19, 3D printing activities are playing a role in trying to address supply chain problems. We have witnessed glimpses of possible futures for 3D printing and the futures of work. The crisis has highlighted how far additive manufacturing is from industrial scale production, currently sitting at production runs of tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands rather than millions. Contributions have been made through the 3D printing of COVID-19 testing swabs, some medical PPE face shields and the use of 3D printing to avoid expensive and time-consuming retooling of production lines at large manufacturers, but publicity materials remain quiet on actual numbers produced. While current production systems are predicated on mass volume, the industry will struggle to take market share from traditional methods. It is not yet a threat to the new industrial division of labour and it is not yet generating significant reshoring of manufacturing jobs.

On the other hand, media coverage of grassroots 3D printing to supply PPE has been extensive and we have witnessed public-private partnerships, equipment sharing, materials exchanges, predominately at the local scale. At the start of the crisis when supply chains issues were particularly acutely felt, particularly for medical supplies, a decentralised model of 3D printing did support the supply deficits (both from industry and non-industry). Open source designs for PPE were circulated across the 3D printing community and many small firms and individuals printed parts for local medical facilities across the globe. Unfortunately, the regulation and materials standards required for medical grade production were unable to be met, resulting in huge human labour and effort going to waste. The unregulated nature of the decentralised 3D printing community enabled the printing activities, but ultimately it often stumbled due to lack of awareness of the requirements of the products. Clearly, however, there is still great potential for this model to contribute to less regulated production of products in shortage, such as non-medical PPE.

If the COVID-19 pandemic offers us any insight into a future in which previously taken-for-granted supply chains are disrupted or displaced, we can initially conclude that neither vision of the future is yet able to be realised. In fact, given the highly geographically uneven nature of manufacturing production, a future in which both narratives coexist seems likely in the medium-term. In the longer term, it is possible that the ‘Factory of the Future’ will enable the artisan production of luxury items by freeing the labour force from routinized manual labour. This is unlikely to be universal, exacerbating the stark divisions in working conditions that we witness in the contemporary global economy.


Jennifer Johns is Reader in International Business at the University of Bristol

Image credit: Rob Wingate on Unsplash