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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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.