An Economist View of the Third Industrial Revolution, Part II: Crowdsourcing, Robots, and Chocolate! Oh My!


Last month, I highlighted a number of articles from Manufacturing: The Third Industrial Revolution, a recent special report from The Economist that does an excellent job of informing the reader on the digitalization of manufacturing that is underway. It seems an understatement for me to write that there is much “grist for the mill” from this issue. On the one hand, I touched on topics such as the importance of manufacturing and the changing nature of manufacturing jobs, the comparative advantage equation for manufacturing (including the current versus possible future role of low-cost labor), the revolutionary technology of 3D Printing, and high-end manufacturing utilizing inventive materials. On the other hand (borrowing a reference to President Truman’s plea for a one-handed economist, recently noted in Ken Voytek’s blog on U.S. economic indicators), I only covered half of the section’s six articles! So, let me take this opportunity to fill you in on more of what The Economist special section has to say.

Collaborative Manufacturing: All Together Now describes the opportunities that crowdsourcing provides, especially when 3D Printers are involved. The article touches on various examples of crowdsourcing, which is a process that involves outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people (and usually an undefined public group at that). A noteworthy example, however, involves Shapeways, an online manufacturing firm headquartered in New York City that specializes in 3D printing services. Users upload their designs and receive instant quotes for production via 3D Printers using a variety of materials. Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen cites three major advantages of crowdsourcing via 3D Printing:

  • Speed to market – use of 3D printers to manufacture designs meant that Shapeways’ first Apple iPad covers hit the market four days after the iPad’s initial release;
  • Almost no risk of going to market – ideas can be tested before scaling up and designs can be tweaked based on buyer feedback; and
  • Ability to supersede machined designs – 3D printing allows one to produce things that are too intricate to be made via machining or by other means.

(By the way, for excellent information on the crowdsourcing model as it applies to funding and finance, please see Doug Devereaux’s recent blog devoted to the topic here.)

On the subject of 3D printing, Layer By Layer: How 3D Printers Work covers the various materials and techniques used to print various products. These include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Stereolithography (SLA) via liquid plastic, which can be sprayed by an inkjet head and cured with ultraviolet light;
  • Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), in which thermoplastic is melted in an extrusion head to deposit thin filament;
  • Powder, which can be melted by laser via Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), or spread as a thin layer and solidified by means of liquid binder, or fused with an electron beam operating in a vacuum;
  • Printing with simple living tissue, which can be used to produce skin, muscle and blood vessels (a noteworthy successful example of “bioprinting” is the creation of a jawbone used in a transplant, which I covered in a prior blog, along with many of the techniques noted here), and such technology may lead to printing of human organs; and last, but not least;?
  • Food, including a chocolate printer as well as a 3D printer for icing on cakes and buns (perhaps coming soon to a cupcakery near you)!

Finally, Automation: Making the Future covers the role of robots in the manufacturing environment. It is interesting that the article notes that Japanese manufacturing advances of the late 20th Century and the challenges that they posed to the U.S. were fueled by Lean Manufacturing – not robots, as had been anticipated at the time by some. However, the age of the industrial robot is now upon us, at least for larger firms. As for the implications of robots displacing humans (which was nicely addressed in the American Public Media Marketplace series a few months back, Robots Ate My Job), The Economist writes:

“Yet manufacturing will still need people, if not so many in the factory itself. All these automated machines require someone to service them and tell them what to do. Some machine operators will become machine minders, which often calls for a broader range of skills. An certain tasks, such as assembling components, remain too fiddly for robots to do well, which is why assembly is often subcontracted to low-wage countries.”

While the brethren of Rosie the Robot may be a reality for “big boys” of business, what about the SMEs? To this end, the article notes that “for small and medium-sized businesses robots are generally too costly and too inflexible” but that efforts (such as by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute) are underway to address this issue for smaller manufacturers. The piece posits the future impact for SMEs when stating that “there will be millions of small and medium-sized firms that will benefit from new materials, cheaper robots, smarter software, an abundance of online services and 3D printers that can economically produce things in small numbers.”

In closing, these are but some of the means and methods by which we are entering a brave new world of manufacturing for firms large and small. What do you think the future holds?

About Author

Ben Vickery

Ben Vickery is Senior Technical Advisor with NIST MEP, and works in its Partnership and Program Development Office. Ben is leading NIST MEP’s efforts to create regional Technology Collaboratives, which serve to develop and sustain regional innovation ecosystems that are positioned and prepared to identify, assess, and adopt technologies resulting from federal R&D investments.


  1. Stacey Wagner on

    Coming up next: Robots Ate My Cheese! Seriously though, I think this is very exciting stuff and will also change the way students understand advanced manufacturing – not as a production floor, but rather more like Star Trek’s Holodeck.

    • Thanks Stacey. I do suspect that developments in additive manufacturing, robotics, biomimicry/synthetic biology, metadata, et al. will make an impact in washing away some of the prejudice that students and youngsters seem to have demonstrated regarding their perceptions towards manufacturing and careers therein.

  2. Shirley Collier on

    These is enormous untapped opportunity for SME manufacturers and those who participate in the supply chain, to benefit from the $250B the government spends annually on scientific and technical research. This research, performed by universities and government laboratories, spans the gamut from nanotechnology to space exploration, and produces innovations that can and should be transferred to the private sector. Most of it collects dust. Let’s get small businesses in the manufacturing sector knowledgeable of and connected to these government innovations so we all… the private sector, society and our economy, all benefit.

  3. Doug Devereaux on

    Great article Ben. The brave new world you referred to in your article is increasing described as a possible a third industrial revolution where the new technologies like 3D printers, personal CNC machines, the maker movement, crowd funding, etc. will change the entire manufacturing industry. I’m not sure that spells the end of mass production, but as you pointed out, customization then may become the economically feasible norm in the future.

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