3D printing: is it really all that?

It might not be ALL that, but it's most of that, writes the Big Innovation Centre's Spencer Thompson

Many people are extremely excited about 3D printing. The ability to print goods on demand using ‘additive manufacturing’ techniques has led to many technology commentators heralding a new era for manufacturing. Even The Economist has got in on the act, dubbing 3D printing a potential ‘Third industrial revolution’. But is 3D printing the real deal, or is all of this hype overblown? And either way, should government be worrying about 3D printing at a time where it has its plate full?

3D printing is currently the reserve of a group of hard-core hobbyists who design interesting things like plastic ties, as well as other, more worrying objects like the "WIKIWEP A" (a cheap and disposable plastic handgun). Beyond this ‘maker’ subculture, 3D printing is also used by some advanced manufacturers as a quick and easy way to create prototypes of products. As it stands, these two groups are unlikely to cause much widespread disruption to the current global production system, which relies on mass-production and worldwide distribution networks to get goods into the hands of consumers. It will take a lot for a ragtag army of open-source-loving enthusiasts to overturn the ultra-efficient giants of global manufacturing.

But we shouldn’t write off 3D printing just yet. Many transformative technologies were greeted with initial scepticism. A McKinsey report in 1980 advised AT&T that mobile phones would be a niche technology with little widespread impact. Fast-forward three decades and mobile communications have proved genuinely revolutionary, with everything from African agriculture to the mass media transformed by its application. Similarly, 3D printing is unlikely to turn the global economy entirely on its head. Many thought the advent of digital photography and home printing signalled the death of high street camera shops, but consumers still choose to print photos taken on their smartphones and cameras at a shop, preferring the high quality glossy finish to anything they could manage on their low-cost home printer. Sure Kodak recently went bust, but shops like Boots seem to be doing a healthy trade in photo printing, as well as in a whole range of low-cost objects like mugs and posters adorned with images provided by the customer.

It is likely 3D printing will evolve in a similar fashion. 3D printing won’t necessarily destroy the whole global manufacturing industry, but it could take on large chunks of it (up to half of all manufacturing by our reckoning), and it could bring some manufacturing jobs back from the UK. The extent of 3D printing’s proliferation will hinge on whether the local-and-personal world of 3D printing can compete with the mass-produced-and-global world of mass manufacturing. The truth is, we don’t know for sure how this will play out. But we do think it’s more likely to happen in some industries (like toys and pharmaceuticals) than in others (I won’t be boarding a 3D printed plane anytime soon).

However big or small 3D printing turns out to be, it is still pretty exciting. Some hobbyists will print objects at home, but the greatest potential for 3D printing is for retailers to be able to offer personalised, print-on-demand products at the point of sale. It would mean a lot of manufacturing taking place in the UK as opposed to another, lower-cost economy. This could lead to the evolution of a new kind of UK manufacturing industry, centred around the consumer and playing to UK strengths in retail and customer service. And if 3D printing is a complement to, rather than a replacement for mass production, it will be generating new economic activity – otherwise known as growth.

Even this modest assessment of the potential for 3D printing raises some pretty fundamental questions for the government. If a product printed at a shop is faulty, who holds the responsibility? The original designer? The printer? Or the company that supplied the printing materials? And what about the home-printing of handguns? How – or indeed should – we police potentially millions of low-quality home printers to ensure they don’t make dangerous objects?  These are questions of legal policy and would need to be confronted by policymakers if 3D printing is going to go anywhere.

It also has implications for intellectual property laws. Currently, if a company like Apple wishes to use a component in their products developed by another country, such as a microprocessor designed by ARM, they have to engage in lengthy licensing negotiations, agreeing terms and drawing up complicated contracts. If your friendly neighbourhood 3D printer wants to create a customised mobile phone for you, the cost and complexity of licensing the different components may prove prohibitively expensive. Therefore the intellectual property policy system, overseen by the government, may need to be open to a radical re-think in order to facilitate more widespread 3D printing.

We shouldn’t be overly prescriptive in defining what the 3D printing industry will look like, and what the appropriate policy response should be. Instead policymakers need to be alert to the evolution of this new and exciting technology, and ready to remove roadblocks to its growth and adoption. What we definitely don’t want is a repeat of the decade-long copyright wars, where policymakers took years to come to terms with the very idea of digital file-sharing. With 3D printing, the stakes are so much higher, and the vested interests so much more vocal, that we risk even more painful and protracted arguments if we don’t think more seriously about it. By starting to consider the potential implications and opportunities presented by 3D printing now, we stand a much better chance of making the most of the technology, turning it from a niche hobby to much-needed economic growth.

Miniature heads made using a 3D printer. Photograph: S zillayali, CC-BY-SA

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?