“The solution to all problems no matter the scale ultimately requires human creativity.”

Chase Jarvis


I have been writing, positively, about additive manufacturing (AM or 3D Printing) since maybe 2011. It was one of those manufacturing ideas of which the benefits were easily recognized and the barriers to its adoption also easily recognized. It’s the latter that I speak of today.

Traditionally speaking, AM adoption rates tend to lean into the most obvious aspect – capital expenditures. Manufacturing invests a significant % of monies resources into structural capital. I have the scars of this discussion having worked with biofuels and factory retooling discussions. Hard machinery and the resources surrounding them to maintain and use are massive sunk costs which tend to have some nice ROIs already attached to them. But I would argue that the success of any structural adoption, of anything, revolves around the one thing that also dictates any meaningful adoption – people. Yeah. Money, and sunk costs, is the backpack the humans of an organization carry around with them wherever they go. But. I use that metaphor purposefully because it is always people who decide where that backpack travels. I would also argue additive manufacturing will inevitably face the same issue that automation is facing – people. Any manufacturing retooling discussions have a tipping point in that smaller %’s are ‘needed innovations within the structure’ leading to ‘needed structural innovations’ in a larger business transformation. The former almost always only effects a smaller % of people (employees) while the latter makes everyone in every role start assessing skills, responsibilities, ‘time usage’ and a variety of labor-based evaluation machinations.

And while I am fairly sure most of these discussions happen in some slickish conference rooms with huge spreadsheets, HR people and overpaid consultants, inevitably the bulk of those involved are the people, skilled and who have given and created value for the existing business, who are wondering – what happens to me? What will my job be? What will I do? They read “jobs eliminated” and the heinous “reskill” (“I mean, why me? Why would I reskill when I have skills and many of the skills I have, have never been maximized anyway?”).

** note: I hate ‘reskill.’ 5, 50, 500, 5000 employees. Instead of saying “don’t worry, we have a reskilling plan for you” we should sit down with each and say “how can we best use your skills to help us be successful moving forward?” one discussion is labor, the other is potential. People rise to potential and do labor. I would be remiss if I also didn’t point out that the former is constraint driven, reductive in its potential in other words, while the latter is emergent driven, expansive in its potential in other words.


Which leads me to this thought.

AM adoption means a business is being transformed, but I would encourage everyone to think this is not transformation by technology or automation, but instead think of these things as simply liberators of time and minds of, well, people.

Of course, a percentage of jobs will be replaced by automation. It would be absurd to not acknowledge that factories, and some businesses, will go running to automation in their attempt to efficiently, consistently, produce things 24/7. Entire industries will stare at balance sheets trying to assess what is the automation efficacy bottom line for manufacturing and doing business. A select few of idiots in the service industry will also do the same. I will not put a number on that and, regardless of the number, people affected are harmed financially. But I believe the larger number effected will actually be within the 4 walls of businesses themselves. It was Mike Walsh who first made me think of it this way, but let’s assume 80% of a large segment of workers will have automation assume 20% of their current responsibilities (%’s are used simply to make the point not to be taken literally). Now. Of course, business will immediately seek to consolidate employees, based on ‘hours worked’ to attempt to lower people costs and efficiently get an ROI from a traditional 40-hour week. Far too many will do this and while in the short term (maybe even a generation) they will do fine because once again they squeezed out costs and squeezed output from ‘less.’ It is a race to the efficacy bottom and simply squeezes out whatever paste is left in the tube rather than seeing if they can redesign the tube to hold more paste.

** note: this is reductionism at its worst. I will state the obvious; the danger of reductionism is it rarely tells us about construction. And businesses, while they may not word it this way, view automation as a way to ‘reduce’ – people, unevenness, human error, costs. The future of business will not be found in reductionism, but rather construction.

And while that last paragraph was about automation, I believe AM solidly slots itself into the same discussion. Far too often we see it as simply ‘manufacturing transformation’ of which the people who serve that manufacturing are simply seen as serving the machines. That is a simplistic road to ruin. The active energy in any business is not technology, or machines, its people. Technology can activate energy, or amplify, energy, but generally speaking, at best it is passive energy if not just sustaining energy (when designed well). But my point with AM is that there is an opportunity for it to activate energy (freeing up people) and amplifying energy (maximizing the people energy being generated from automation).

I have no idea whether businesses within additive manufacturing say the following or not, but they should: the future of additive manufacturing depends on the future of people in business. This ‘people’ includes not just the supposed designated thinkers or ‘leaders’, but rather everyone – all employees. Look. Social behavior and human imagination are inescapable. You either ignore the importance of human connectivity or optimize the interactions people do have. And while business is only becoming more complex and dynamic, machines and their supporting technology (machine learning, algorithms, AI in general) are only becoming more complex and dynamic, I would argue this is where simplicity plays a role because human interactions are actually the simplest relationship within complex systems.

Yes. It is a causal, linear, issue in business (and linear moments are gold mines for a business).

The future of additive manufacturing business is found within a contradiction – automated symmetrical and asymmetrical conceptual and perceptual. Pragmatism and possibilities. It will be, simultaneously, the maximization of automation-based manufacturing and the unautomated human curiosity to explore. This continuous learning and curiosity is important because complexity, and complex dynamic systems, always have an inherent degree of randomness as well as emergent qualities. And, yes, this even includes additive manufacturing.

I would argue, and will, that Additive Manufacturing, any automation, in the end, is about freedom and the future of work will not be defined by those who optimize automation, but rather by those who optimize freedom the people in the organization have gained (assuming the business doesn’t use automation as an excuse to “downsize”, i.e., embrace reductionism).


“The future is not just about inventing disruptive technology; it is about reimagining human experiences.”

Mike Walsh


As a last thought on ‘freeing up’ people.

Additive versus subtractive.

I actually believe the way to position additive manufacturing in the global market view is grounded in its engineering truth – additive. I will not argue that existing subtractive manufacturing is actually subtractive in business nature, however, I will argue that additive manufacturing is actually additive to business nature. It is additive to progress, people, possibilities, environment, etc. In other words, by adding additive manufacturing to industry it is additive to making the world, and people, better, and, I imagine, eliminates some of the subtractive parts of manufacturing which have been constraints to making things better. That’s what I would center my messaging around.

To be clear. This could be misused to pursue some grander “Purpose” type initiative (it shouldn’t) or even be broken down into Cause and social responsibility components, like environmentally responsible (it shouldn’t), because additive is, well, additive. Progress is progress and better is better. While I am sure someone will suggest details matter, I would argue the definition is where additive manufacturing will benefit the most. And you know what? People will benefit the most. Well. What more could anyone ask for?


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Written by Bruce