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

Photo: Getty
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What does François Bayrou's endorsement of Emmanuel Macron mean for the French presidential race?

The support of the perennial candidate for President will boost Macron's morale but won't transform his electoral standing. 

François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist Democratic Movement and a candidate for the French presidency in 2007 and 2012, has endorsed Emmanuel Macron’s bid for the presidency.

What does it mean for the presidential race?  Under the rules of the French electoral system, if no candidate secures more than half the vote in the first round, the top two go through to a run-off.

Since 2013, Marine Le Pen has consistently led in the first round before going down to defeat in the second, regardless of the identity of her opponents, according to the polls.

However, national crises – such as terror attacks or the recent riots following the brutal arrest of a 22-year-old black man, who was sodomised with a police baton – do result in a boost for Le Pen’s standing, as does the ongoing “Penelopegate” scandal about the finances of the centre-right candidate, François Fillon.

Macron performs the most strongly of any candidate in the second round but struggles to make it into the top two in the first. Having eked out a clear lead in second place ahead of Fillon in the wake of Penelopegate, Macron’s lead has fallen back in recent polls after he said that France’s rule in Algeria was a “crime against humanity”.

Although polls show that the lion’s share of Bayrou’s supporters flow to Macron without his presence in the race, with the rest going to Fillon and Le Pen, Macron’s standing has remained unchanged regardless of whether or not Bayrou is in the race or not. So as far as the electoral battlefield is concerned, Bayrou’s decision is not a gamechanger.

But the institutional support of the Democratic Movement will add to the ability of Macron’s new party, En Marche, to get its voters to the polls on election day, though the Democratic Movement has never won a vast number of deputies or regional elections. It will further add to the good news for Macron following a successful visit to London this week, and, his supporters will hope, will transform the mood music around his campaign.

But hopes that a similar pact between Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate, and Jean-Luc Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left Front’s candidate, look increasingly slim, after Mélenchon said that joining up with the Socialists would be like “hanging himself to a hearse”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.