No. 250

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Stone the crows! Employment isn’t mass produced anymore

The big news in additive manufacturing this week was printing monuments to ego. It is now possible to print customised statues of individuals from photos.[i] This is indeed fortunate for those of us who are no oil painting and is predicted to be this year’s must-have Christmas frippery.[ii]

But while this story made a splash last week, the importance of additive manufacturing – using a laser printer to deposit metal or plastic in a pattern – is that it is transformative for producing the highest high tech, short run products.[iii] Like jet engines – a Monash-Deakin U-CSIRO team has printed two.[iv] And titanium jawbones, a bloke in Melbourne has one.[v] At a technically easier level, the technology is making bicycles and tyres.[vi]

The implications for the way the world makes everything are enormous known unknowns. Iain Todd argues that additive manufacturing now is in the same place the internet was 15 years ago – everybody (except newspaper publishers) knew something was about to happen but nobody much understand how extraordinary the change would be. [vii]

Certainly sceptics suggest that additive manufacturing does not match established precision engineering and is in its infancy for key areas, like printing circuit boards, and that it might take a decade to become competitive. But this isn’t long in terms of the lifespan of industries around for generations – just ask publishers.[viii]

It might even create a new Australian manufacturing industry. If entrepreneurs and engineers have the ideas and the coders can create the programs there is no reason why people here can’t print product.[ix]

Given this is manufacturing without a staffed assembly line, Australia’s high wages aren’t an issue. In fact, an educated and expensive workforce is an actual advantage. As Swinburne University’s intellectual capital science guru Goran Roos points out:

It will be the digital designs and digital specifications and not the products themselves that will move around the world and the only physical movement will be the nano-powder and the additive manufacturing units themselves. The savings that will accrue in labour, tooling, assembly, shipping, inventory, working capital is posing a major threat for countries that have emphasised low-cost traditional manufacturing. Instead there will be a growth in all the new service related activities that will take place in digital space, e.g. digital testing, digital simulation, digital file compression, etc. All require highly educated individuals and sophisticated tool development, where the labour cost component in the service is small as a percentage of the value provided and hence can be executed in high-cost countries.[x]

Which means that additive printing will never generate jobs for unskilled workers, or even for tradespeople working in big manufacturing enterprises, like steelworks. In Wollongong NSW, Blue Scope is said to be coming close to shutting down its last blast furnace, which would end 2000 direct jobs, plus thousands more contractors – in the 1980s, steel in the city employed 22,000 workers. [xi]

The obvious answer is to retrain them all in IT. Obvious, but wrong. For a start, most people do not have the inclination or intellect to code for a quid and having armies of STEM graduates is not the answer – for a start, every competing country is churning them out.

 Instead, as Stephen Callendar points out, “The path to prosperity in this new global order will be innovation. The commodity in scarce supply will be ideas, and the creators and holders of those ideas will reap outsize rewards in superstar winner-take-most markets.”[xii]

For once, Australia has a comparative advantage in manufacturing – the state funded post school education system. That everybody must complete high school, and continue onto higher and or further education, is a given in the community. Some 85 per cent of 20-24 year olds completed high school, and 40 per cent of them are at university or voc. ed. institutions.[xiii] The real figure is likely even higher when young graduates in the age group are included and for people under 20.

The question is what they are taught. As Deakin University VC Jane den Hollander puts it, “In an age when vast quantities of information are available instantaneously and outdated almost immediately, the ability to deal nimbly with complex and often ambiguous knowledge is far more important than an accumulation of facts.”[xiv]

Entrepreneurial culture runs deep in the Australian psyche – except we call it having a go. The digital world gives us a chance to do just that. Good lord, who would have thought it – an optimistic Crows column.

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[i] Chris Griffith, “3D printers put sculpture just a click away,” The Australian, June 5

[ii] Anne Hyland, “Want a 3D selfie?” Australian Financial Review, June 20

[iii] The Economist, “Heavy Metal,” May 3 2014

[iv] Jake Sturmer, “3D printing: Australian researchers create jet engine,” ABC News February 26 @ recovered on June 20

[v] Stephanie Ferrier, “Titanium, 3D-printed prosthetic jaw implanted in Melbourne man ABC News, @ recovered on June 20

[vi] Stuart Kennedy, “Flying Machine takes high tech track to manufacturing success, The Australian, October 1

[vii] Iain Todd, “Its not just hype-3D printing is the bridge to the future,” The Conversation, June 19 @ recovered on June 20

[viii] Steve Banker, “3D printing’s ability to transform supply chains is years away,” Forbes, February 27 2014 @

[ix] Babs McHugh, “Australia’s first commercial 3D printing factory opens in Melbourne,” ABC Rural, October 13 2014 @ recovered on June 20

[x] Goran Roos, “Understanding the strategic consequences of additive manufacturing,” Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering, 2014 @ recovered on June 20

[xi] Tim Binsted, “Does Australia’s steel industry have a future?” Australian Financial Review June 19

[xii] Steven Callandar, “The strategic imperative: Australia’s place in the global labour market,” (in) CEDA, Australia’s future workforce, June 2015, 204-212 @ recovered on June 20

[xiii] Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Year 12 achievement and continuing education,” ABC, April 17 2013 @ recovered on June 20

[xiv] Jane den Hollander, “A brave new world of higher education,” (in) CEDA op cit