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3D Printing is Turning the Economics of Scale on its Head

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We’ve been manufacturing at home for millennia, from stone tools to clothes and textiles – sewn, knit, woven. Today, most of us purchase more than we make. But one technology expert says that tariffs on imports from China could change that, by making even small, everyday plastic items cheaper to make than to buy. 

3D printing is the technology in question. It’s been used by manufacturers for rapid prototyping for decades. As 3D printing technology has developed, manufacturers and researchers have increasingly used high-end printers to make final products out of a range of materials. 

 

“But there's another side to 3D printing, and that's the low-end, and that's mostly plastic,” said Joshua Pearce, a professor at Michigan Technological University. “And instead of just prototyping things in plastic, we can make final plastic products. And it's not just only manufacturers. It's even people in their own homes.” 

 

Today, a desktop 3D printer can go for less than a thousand dollars, making it economical for people to print high-cost custom items, like prostheses or orthotic devices. But, surprisingly, Pearce says his research has shown that at-home 3D printing can actually be cost-competitive for small items like shower curtain rings. 

 

In other words, 3D printing is turning the economics of scale on its head. Pearce says it’s not about the cost of materials or manufacturing, it’s the shipping and distributing costs – middlemen in today’s global economy – that put mass-manufactured items at a disadvantage. And that will only increase with import tariffs in place. 

 

Pearce’s analyses have shown that making one modest item a week – or, perhaps, printing all the kids’ Christmas presents – would recoup the cost of a low-end 3D printer. Add into the equation his RecycleBot, which turns recyclable waste plastic into ready-to-print plastic filament (and can, itself, be largely 3D printed), and at-home manufacturing becomes even cheaper and more appealing. 

 

But do we really want to replace the manufacturing industry with 3D printers in every garage, den, or basement? 

 

“That's a great question and I'm not sure,” said Pearce. “I'm not sure how this is going to end at all. But what I am sure of is that, already, a significant fraction of consumer products are 3D printable and are being 3D printed.” 

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.