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

Getty
Show Hide image

David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition