Engineers say 3D printing is poised to significantly alter Canada’s manufacturing workforce.

Nigel Southway, the Toronto chair of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, says 3D printing will “be ready for full implementation and roll-out within the next five years.”

Southway warns of job losses, but some of those losses will be offset by a more skilled workforce.

“It’s a fact of life with technology, if it’s a good technology, it will make costs go down and things get more simplified. That means fewer jobs, unfortunately,” Southway said. “It’s not a huge job loss situation. But if we don’t embrace this technology we’ll lose even more, because we’re not going to have the products developed in Canada and we won’t have the option to retain the products we have.”

Statistics Canada’s most recent numbers show manufacturing was worth $49.5 billion in August, down slightly after three months of gains.

'Can't afford not to do this'

Southway said the skilled workforce in Canada has to evolve to keep up with the changing technology.

“We can’t afford not to do this. This is a very portable technology. Very soon everyone will have this technology,” Southway said. “If we don’t do it, someone else will and we won’t be in the game.”

Jill Urbanic , an associate professor in the department of mechanical, automotive and materials engineering at the University of Windsor says, “You can always find a negative argument” for any technological development.

“The bottom line is, we have to develop something that people want, that people like, in a cost-competitive manner and in a way that it adds value and you always have to be on top of the latest and greatest technologies,” she said. "There's a lot of potential. It's up to us to figure out how to use that potential, that's where I'm coming from. There are always issues.”

Southway and Urbanic say 3D printing will reduce costs, increase opportunities and encourage innovation.

“It allows an engineer to make a one-off and try something,” Southway said.

“The idea behind it is as limited as your imagination,” Urbanic said.

3D printing — also called additive manufacturing — involves creating a solid object by layering thin slices of material including plastic, metal and ceramic.

The technology has been around for decades but has caught the public eye over the last few years as the technology has become more refined and cheaper.

Manufacturing, he added, is "turning into a button in your browser," Chris Anderson, author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution told CBC News in May.

Linear Mold and Engineering in Livonia, Mich., added 3D printing to its shop years ago.

"When we first started we were just building prototype injection moulds for the automotive industry. We since have morphed into this technology, the 3D metal printing and it has greatly expanded our entire work base,” Linear president John Tenbusch said. “Before, we were doing 100 per cent automotive. Now, we're probably doing, maybe, 65 per cent automotive and the rest of our business is broken up between aerospace, medical, military and industrial goods."

3D printing in space

NASA is preparing to launch a 3D printer into space next year. It will be a toaster-sized game changer that greatly reduces the need for astronauts to load up with every tool, spare part or supply they might ever need.

Southway said 3D printing makes custom and smaller orders “more doable.”

“You want a part, we make a part. You break a part, we make a part. It will allow us to collapse inventory and be closer to the customer,” he said, noting shipping mass orders from China, for example, may become less common practice.

Hip and knee replacement recipient Linda Gagnier could have used 3D technology.

"The first one I had was a little bit too small. So we had to do a lot of extra physiotherapy for it. The second one was a little bit too big,” Gagnier said of one of her knees. “Right now, all they have is some sitting on a table and the doctor has to pick out the one that he figures best suits you. So you're not going to get a perfect fit.”

That’s about to change, Tenbusch said.

“The doctor is actually going to take an MRI of your good knee, he'll create a math data file where they can make perfect pieces to fit your bone structure,” Tenbusch said.

Students at the University of Windsor have proven they can manufacture cellphone covers and tools for the auto industry. But Southway said mass production is still five years off.

“When we talk about innovation, this is innovation-making technology,” he said. “You can put together something theoretically in your subdivision or garage, but I don’t think you’ll see anyone making parts for their cars anytime soon.”