Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

In its next generation of jet engines, General Electric Co. plans to use a new, and possibly revolutionary, technology.

In each engine, 19 nozzles will shoot fuel into a combustion chamber, where it mixes with compressed air. Because the fuel must be distributed precisely, the interior of a nozzle is very sophisticated: Elaborate chambers and passageways help curtail emissions, control nitrous-oxide levels and prevent temperature surges. Previously, making each nozzle required welding 20 disparate pieces together. Now, GE is employing 3-D printing to build each nozzle as a single piece, using laser sintering on a metal alloy called cobalt chromium.

The new nozzle is faster to make, five times more durable and a full pound lighter -- on a two-engine plane, that saves almost 40 pounds. And it radically reduces scrap. By 2020, the company expects that 100,000 of its engine parts will be made using this process.

All around you, 3-D printing technology is making useful things in novel ways. Align Technology Inc. uses it to make clear orthodontics. Nike Inc. uses it to make soccer cleats. Bespoke Innovations makes customized (and quite stylish) prosthetics. And DUS Architects, a Dutch company, plans to print a whole house.

As the sheer variety of these examples suggests, 3-D printing is already having a demonstrable effect on the economy. Traditionally, it has been most useful in creating prototypes. But as GE and others are showing, printers will increasingly be able to produce critical parts and final products. In 2012, 28.3 percent of the $2.2 billion global 3-D printing market was tied to the production of parts for final products rather than prototypes, according to the Wohlers Report 2013. That shift could have profound implications for the economy and for public policy.

Silent Factories

Today, 3-D printing remains a small part of manufacturing. For mass-produced consumer products, injection molding is typically faster and cheaper. Increasingly, though, businesses will use 3-D printers to complement their old-fashioned equipment to make specialized goods. In a few decades, an aerospace company like GE could be manufacturing jets in silent factories, with rows and rows of 3-D printers churning out cutting-edge parts in proficient solitude, and not a human laborer in sight.

For many companies, the logic of this technology is already clear. The first advantage is efficiency. Because 3-D printers build an object by layering plastic or other material guided by a design file, they eliminate the waste of traditional manufacturing, in which up to 90 percent of raw materials can be discarded. The printers can work all day and night unattended. They can print interlocking parts, reducing or eliminating the need for assembly. They will enable companies to shorten supply chains, instantly distribute goods to any printer and quickly make replacement parts. And they can create objects with geometries and internal complexities that traditional factory machines can’t match.

Second, for rapid prototyping, 3-D printing is already quite useful in fields as diverse as automotive, medical, aerospace and consumer electronics. Designers don’t need to wait for parts to be shipped, they don’t need advanced skills to tinker, and they can adjust specifications and create new iterations quickly. As a result, they can try out zany ideas at a relatively low cost.

Free Complexity

This ability to easily experiment, combined with a technology that creates shapes that can’t be made any other way, may become increasingly powerful. From an engineering perspective, complexity is free: The cost, time and skill necessary for 3-D printing a complicated object is roughly the same as for a simple one made of the same amount of material. As a result, inventors will be freed to dream up products in shapes and material combinations never attempted before, unburdened by the design logic of traditional manufacturing. They’ve already made progress integrating electronics into 3-D printed goods; down the line, they’ll be able to embed sensors, smart technology and artificial intelligence.

Finally, as personal printers get better and cheaper, they’re reducing the expense and risk for individual inventors to become manufacturers. The cost of customization is almost eliminated, because the printers don’t require retooling to make new shapes, and entrepreneurs don’t need to sell big batches of identical items; they can print to order. For a small business, a 3-D printer can eliminate excess production and the need for warehousing, and diminish the costs of distribution. Enthusiasts like to imagine a future in which a 3-D printer in every home will produce all you need, customized and on demand. A more likely scenario is that people will use a print shop to produce designs they’ve purchased from entrepreneurs or created themselves. In Europe, Staples Inc. is collaborating with Mcor Technologies Ltd. on just such a strategy: Customers can upload design files to a website, and have the product printed at their local Staples.

All of which is to say that we shouldn’t underestimate the potential for this technology to disrupt economies. Because 3-D printing is in its infancy, government should tread carefully with new laws or regulations intended to limit this upheaval. But there are a few steps it can take to ease the transition.

The first is to ensure the U.S. -- where roughly 40 percent of the world’s 3-D printers are located -- remains a leader in the field. The White House took an important step last year, when it created the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a public-private partnership dedicated to advancing 3-D printing. The goal is to help train the workforce in this technology, build curriculums at technical schools, offer sites and equipment where businesses can validate ideas, and support research that will let domestic suppliers produce the advanced machinery the industry will need. This is a smart and inexpensive way to support a promising but underdeveloped technology.

Tomorrow’s Economy

Next, regulators at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and elsewhere should start thinking through better certification processes. In many specialized fields, minor changes to a product can require a full recertification. As customized mass production becomes more common, a more flexible approach would focus on processes instead of products -- that is, approve any product made with certified equipment according to transparent manufacturing guidelines.

Finally, we’ll need to prepare the workforce for an era in which more and more tasks are automated. As we’ve argued before, that means making it easier for workers to develop new skills and start new businesses by investing in education, promoting labor-market flexibility and encouraging innovation. We suspect that 3-D printing will eventually create many jobs, much as transformative technologies in the past have done. But there’s no guarantee that it will, and the transition could be a painful one for workers. In any case, the jobs it creates will almost certainly look very different from the ones we know today.

Disruption can be dangerous and scary. It can also lead to wondrous new businesses and ways of life. Perhaps more importantly, it’s inevitable -- so get in front of it while you can.

(This is the third editorial in a four-part series. Read part one and part two.)

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.