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3D printing: Good, Bad and Ugly

3D printing may sound fantastically futuristic, but the technology is actually quite basic. It is not such a huge step to replace ink, sprayed on paper with plastic resin, so the layers add up to an object. But, by enabling a machine that can produce objects of any shape, as needed, 3D printing heralds in a new era.

As 3D applications expand and prices drop, the first major implication is that goods will be manufactured at or close to their point of purchase or consumption. This might even mean household production of some things, where you pay for raw materials and the software files (for any designs you can’t find free on the web).

Many goods that traditionally relied on the scale efficiencies of large, centralised plants, will be produced locally. Even if the per-unit production cost is higher, it will be more than offset by the elimination of transportation. So, whereas today cars are made by just a few hundred factories around the world, they might one day be made in every metropolitan area. Parts could be made at dealerships and repair shops and assembly plants would eliminate the need for supply chain management by making components as needed.

Another implication is that goods will be infinitely more customised, because altering them won’t require retooling, only tweaking the instructions in the software. Creativity in meeting individuals’ needs will be increasingly key, just as quality control did in the age of rolling out sameness.

These first-order implications will cause businesses all along the supply, manufacturing, and retailing chains to rethink their strategies and operations. And a second-order implication will have even greater impact. As 3D printing takes hold, the factors that have made China the workshop of the world will lose much of their force.

China won’t be a loser in the new era, but it will have to give up on being the world’s manufacturing powerhouse.
China has grabbed outsourced manufacturing contracts from every mature economy by pushing the mass-manufacturing model to its limit. It not only aggregates enough demand to create unprecedented efficiencies of scale, but also minimises an essential cost: labour. Chinese government interventions have been pro-producer at every turn, favouring the growth of the country’s manufacturers over the purchasing power and living standards of its consumers.

Under a model of widely distributed, highly flexible, small-scale manufacturing, these daunting advantages will become liabilities. No workforce can be paid little enough to make up for the cost of shipping across oceans. And few managers raised in a pro-producer climate have the consumer instincts to compete on customisation.

Like every nation, China will still have a domestic market to serve and that is huge. Also, not all products lend themselves to 3D printing. But China will have to give up on being the mass-manufacturing powerhouse of the world. The strategy that has given it such political heft won’t serve it so well in the future.

The great transfer of wealth and jobs to the East over the past two decades may have seemed a decisive tipping point, but this new technology will change again how the world leans, with the US and other western nations, capitalising almost by default.

So 3D printing may alter the global manufacturing power axes, but it may also bring trouble closer to home, particularly if you live in America.

Last year, a law student at the University of Texas, Cody Wilson, leased a 3D printer from the company Stratasys, with the intention of printing a gun, whose blueprints he would distribute online. Stratasys did not find his intentions amusing and took their printer back before he had set it up.

His co-conspirators, calling themselves Defense Distributed, then bought two 3D printers and were successful in testing a printed, plastic 30-round magazine for an AR-15, one of America’s most popular guns. Other people have printed stocks, grips and triggers, but not yet the chamber or barrel of a weapon. Many people are understandably nervous and there are calls for specific 3D legislation.

It is not actually illegal to make a gun for personal use and there is nothing unusual about home-made guns. Michael Weinburg, a staff lawyer at open-source advocacy group, Public Knowledge, thinks clumsy regulation of 3D printing, is a greater threat than potential weapons themselves.

Steve Israel, a democratic congressman, is not so relaxed; he plans to introduce legislation renewing and expanding the Undetectable Firearms Act. This law outlaws guns that cannot be seen by traditional X-ray machines and Israel wants to make plastic magazines illegal too. This type of legislation may prove to be difficult when anyone with internet access and a 3D printer can make their own lethal weapons.

Nigel Phillips

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