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

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

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.