3D printers can make just about anything these days. Saltshakers shaped like your head. Runway fashion. Custom prosthetics and hearing aids. Dream it, and you can print it.
But can 3D printers make jobs?
3D printing has attracted a lot of hype in the past few years, not only for the technology’s ability to make virtually anything, but also for its apparent promise to revitalize New York’s beleaguered manufacturing industry. And while it is true 3-D printing is adding jobs, the numbers are small and they are not likely to get that much bigger anytime soon.
Consider Brooklyn-based Makerbot, which has sold more than 23,000 3D desktop printers since its founding in 2009. It has filled 160 positions this year, bringing its total number of employees to 360. Makerbot, which recently debuted its first 3D scanner at NYC’s Maker Faire convention, merged with industrial 3D printing company Stratasys in a $403 million deal this summer.
Currently, Makerbot is hiring for 16 positions, mostly for engineering roles in product development and web development roles for its online community, Thingiverse, where contributors can upload and tinker with 3D design files. Most of these jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, or at least advanced knowledge of several programming languages.
“We’re not having trouble finding applicants,” said Makerbot spokesperson Jenifer Howard.
There’s just one job actually making the printers in Makerbot’s Sunset Park factory. No college degree required.
Brooklyn’s other 3D printer manufacturer, Solidoodle, has added two positions this year— both in bookkeeping. Former Makerbot COO Sam Cervantes started the company two years ago, and it now employs about 50 people, mostly in design and product development roles.
Like Makerbot, Solidoodle sells 3D printers priced for a consumer market (its second and third generation models sell for $499 and $799) and is targeted toward DIY enthusiasts and inventors; Davey Jose in England is using a Solidoodle printer to create prototypes of his robotic arm. “Our focus is really something to use in people’s homes,” said Solidoodle spokesperson Yahea Abdulla.
The company, started by Cervantes out of his apartment, hasn’t received any venture capital funding, and is focusing on expanding its distribution to meet demand. Since 2009, Solidoodle has sold more than 6,000 printers with close to $5 million in sales.
New York’s other leading 3D printing company, Shapeways, is an online marketplace where users can upload designs for Shapeways to print on demand from a range of materials. The Dutch startup moved its headquarters to New York last year and opened a factory in Long Island City.
It, too, is hiring—25 positions in marketing and product development have been added this year, bringing its employee roster close to 100. Shapeways, which raised $30 million in venture capital last May, says it plans to continue hiring and that it expects to add 50 more positions in the coming year. Currently, six positions are open on its website, but only one– for a production technician– doesn’t require a college degree or advanced design skills.
“It’s a medium for people to be innovative but they should recognize it’s not an end in itself,” said Robert Plant, an associate professor at the University of Miami’s School of Business who’s written about 3D printing for The Wall Street Journal.
“If you give someone a laser printer, it doesn’t make them into Shakespeare,” said Plant. “But it helps them do the job.”
3D printing isn’t bringing back large numbers of manufacturing jobs, but it might bring more jobs in design can bring jobs to NYC won’t be in manufacturing, but in design-related fields, like fashion and architecture. A 3D printer doesn’t take up much room—a plus in the space-squeezed city—and its ability to quickly create low-cost prototypes and custom products is attractive to designers. New York fashion designers have already sent 3D printed dresses and shoes down the cat walk.
“It’s a misconception that 3D printing will create more manufacturing jobs,” said Hod Lipson, co-author of “Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing.” Design is really where job growth will really happen, he says, but that kind of growth is more difficult to predict. He predicts that a new ecosystem of business models around 3D printing will grow, similar to how the computer industry of the 1970s eventually led to online business models like Amazon and Facebook.