When music was a physical item – a vinyl record, a tape or a CD – ownership could be verified and quality could be assured. In the last decade, music progressively morphed into little more than a file which can be easily shared and edited. Now, the vast and rapid technological advances being catalysed by three dimensional printing could see this phenomenon repeated for a much wider range of products.
The 3D printing industry is predicted to be worth over $8bn globally by 2020. Physical items, mass produced and bought in outlet stores, will become replicable and editable by anyone with knowledge of computer-aided drawing and access to a 3D printer.
Already, 3D printing technology is being used to manufacture a wide array of items – from auto parts and prototypes to human skin and organs. In a world where mass-manufacturing takes place on scales never seen before, 3D printing is starting to spell big changes for the way the world thinks about production. This inevitably means we will face new frontiers in global trade as well.
The technology underlying 3D printers has been around since the 1970s, but the devices have come into prominence only in recent years, as patent expiry and new innovation have led to drastic decreases in the price of the devices. To fully appreciate the way 3D printing might impact our lives, consider this: in under an hour, your $2,000 3D printer can turn a couple of metres of coiled plastic filament into anything from jewellery and artworks to gadgets and kitchen tools. By far the more significant applications of 3D printing are in industry. At that scale, the material can be plastic, wood, glass, metal and more. Industrial 3D printers can use as many as 10 materials at a time to make complex, multi-component objects relatively cheaply.
It is too early to describe the emergence of 3D printing as a new industrial revolution (although The New Scientist has done just that). But as the technology becomes faster, cheaper and more sophisticated, it will have wide-reaching impacts on industry and the global economy.
A more efficient 3D printing process would allow industry an opportunity it never had before: for production on the small-scale to be as efficient as large scale production. Think about it: using the techniques of traditional manufacturing, the production of one-off items and prototypes is very costly or impossible as the absence of specialised machines and moulds makes production labour-intensive. This labour-intensity has driven many types of production offshore. The flight of relatively low-skilled manufacturing jobs to nations with lower wage rates and a comparative advantage in manufacturing has been one of the largest structural economic shifts over the past 30 years.
The advent of widespread 3D printing makes it possible for some forms of one-off manufacturing and prototyping to return. For 3D printers, it doesn’t matter if one item or one thousand items are produced; the price of production per item remains constant.
As a result, 3D printing has the capability of bringing the design process and the manufacturing process closer together. With greater ease of innovation, small and medium-sized enterprises will be able to experiment more readily with new ideas, and then see the fruits of their creativity produced quickly and with fewer hurdles than at present. This is not to say, of course, that 3D printing will ever completely replace assembly lines or machining. It will more likely serve to complement, rather than compete with traditional manufacturing.
It also brings challenges, like when plans were released for a working gun which could be produced by anyone with access to a 3D printer – an issue covered in a very recent 60 Minutes piece by Ray Martin. This, like many web-based developments, is incredibly difficult for government to regulate and monitor effectively.
This goes further than just the question of intellectual property. 3D printing and similar technologies have led to a further blurring of the lines between goods and services. There are challenges for global trade as a result, associated with measurement, assigning property rights and responsibility for quality assurance. But the opportunities dwarf the challenges. As the WTO observed in its 2013 World Trade Report, the possibility to edit and create physical objects through 3D printing will feed the burgeoning global middle class desire for variety and individuality in their goods. This is just one of many technological advances challenging us to change our way of thinking about international trade and economic growth. Advances in robotics, data sharing and medical technology are others.
Australia needs to set itself up to take advantage of the opportunities presented by these new technologies. By defining our role in new global value chains and mastering the technology via investment in education and broadband, we can use our greatest asset – the creativity, adaptability and innovation of our population – to create a new generation of broad-based prosperity here at home.
First published by The Guardian on 11 December 2013.