The solo sector's coming 3D attraction

As the internet did to communications, 3D printing is set to shake-up manufacturing, changing the nature of market economies and unleashing the solo enterprise.

Technology is – again – about to transform the way people work, resulting in another big surge in self-employment.

This next technological revolution is 3D printing. It’s here, it’s now, but it’s just in its tiny beginning. Simple 3D printers are already within a price range for most people – at under $1500. Certainly they’re a novelty at the moment, producing paper toys and the like, but could explode in affordable sophistication.

Think of the following example. You purchase a TV-sized 3D printer ‘box’. You’re able to search the internet for a vast array of products, choose what you want (say a set of coffee cups) and have them ‘printed’ and available on the spot in your home. Imagine this with clothing and other basic items.

Three-dimensional printing is an extension of technological revolutions of the last couple of decades. In this we’ve experienced transformations because of instant online transmission of ideas (words), music, images and money. Now get set for online ‘transmission’ via printing of physical objects. This is the realisation of more science fiction fantasy.

The implications cut across every aspect of how societies operate from retailing to transport of goods and more. It’s another big shift away from an industrial society, challenging the very idea of mass production. Imagine not just ordering but producing at home your next pair of joggers, tailored to your foot's specifications.

That’s not to say that mass production will stop. The economies of mass production are likely to beat on price 'home-printed’ production. However, what will happen is a surge of diversity and specialisation through the capacity of people to operate their own small and solo businesses.

Technology has been a big enabler of self-employment. Self-employment took a major jump from the late 1970s (from about 7 per cent of the workforce) to the early 2000s (to about 20 per cent of the workforce). A major factor in this increase was the internet and mobile phones. The ‘office’ is now entirely portable enabling people to work from home, the beach – anywhere.

This is why the much larger bulk of self-employed people (2.1 million in Australia) are now professionals; architects, engineers, health professionals, marketers and consultants of all sorts. The traditional shopkeepers and blue-collar tradies remain important but are smaller sub-sets.

What self-employed professionals do is produce ideas, plans, music, images, concepts and then supply these to clients, mostly business-to-business, or sometimes to consumers.  

To date, reaching into the consumer market for self-employed individuals has been more difficult, particularly for physical objects. An individual can conceive and create a new niche product. That’s just the beginning. They have to manufacture or find a manufacturer, obtain finance to support inventory build up, overcome the logistics and cost of distribution and run the risk of insufficient sales to support these costs. The barriers to entry are formidable, limiting experimentation. Three-dimensional printing entirely changes the equation for tangible items.

Individuals will be able to conceive and design new physical products.

For example, specialised footwear. Because of 3D printing individuals won’t need a manufacturer, build up of stock, or to worry about a distribution and retailing network. They will need good online marketing. The new product won’t require significant sales to make the venture pay for the individual (self-employed entrepreneur). An individual will be able to make a respectable income from modest sales.

This change in the cost-benefit analysis will cause a creative uplift of major proportions. Every aspiring clothing designer will be freed from the formidable costs of establishing their business. People will experiment in products in unimaginable and unpredictable ways.

Yes, established big businesses will move into this with great speed. But what will challenge and swamp big business is the massive scale of activity of millions of individuals doing their own ‘thing’. The shift in the economics of business made possible by 3D printing further unshackles the constraints on being self-employed. It changes the nature of market economies. It is likely to do to manufacturing what the internet has done to newspapers.

Within the motivational profiling of self-employed people across the developed world, what dominates is the desire of people to be their own boss. What the internet, mobile communications and related technological advances have done is feed that desire. Three-dimensional printing will provides another step – and quickly.

One big implication is a fundamental change to the idea of ‘work'. More and more it will be necessary to realise that individuals are businesses.

Ken Phillips is executive director of Independent Contractors Australia and author of Independence and the Death of Employment.