3D printing - from hype to economic growth
16 October 2012
Where is economic growth going to come from? This is the question every economic policymaker and commentator in the UK is currently asking. But short of a resurgent housing market or automotive industry, ideas about which areas of the economy should warrant our attention are thin on the ground. Our research, published today, argues that 3D printing, the ability to print objects on demand, has real potential for future growth, but only if government is on-side and willing to offer the right support.
What is 3D printing and why should we be so excited about it? 3D printing allows businesses and individuals to download designs from the internet and turn them into physical objects, using a technique know as ‘additive manufacturing’. This has growth potential on a number of fronts. Firstly, it poses a welcome challenge to low-cost manufacturing imports, allowing UK businesses to print low- cost bespoke objects customised to the preferences of each customer. This could lead to a new kind of British manufacturing emerging, one more orientated around the consumer, with the revenue and profits flowing increasingly to UK businesses as opposed to their foreign competitors. In the future, 3D printing could lead to a great many jobs being ‘re-shored’ to the UK, as well as a much more vibrant manufacturing sector in terms of economic growth.
Secondly, it plays to already existing UK strengths in design. When a mass-market for 3D printing emerges, the digital designs used as the basis for products will become increasingly important. The UK has a world-leading product design sector, and 3D printing could make this profitable but niche industry better able to project itself globally, with 3D printers worldwide sourcing designs developed in the UK.
Why does policy need to get involved? On its own, the nascent 3D printing industry is unlikely to be able to reach a mass-market. But there are several things policymakers can do now to ensure the UK can make the most of the technology as it evolves.
Firstly, 3D printing poses several challenges to our intellectual property system. Those businesses producing customised objects for consumers via 3D printing need to be able to access the designs for a wide variety of components quickly and cheaply. The current legal system means they would need to engage in costly rights negotiations with a variety of other businesses each time they wanted to produce an object, seriously curtailing the ability of 3D-printing businesses to function. Policy needs to explore different ways of organising the intellectual property systems to get around this, ensuring legal bureaucracy does not stand in the way of this exciting technology.
Secondly, there are pressing questions around the regulation and standardisation of 3D-printed objects. If something goes wrong with your bespoke 3D-printed cycle helmet, who should be at fault? Should it be the original designer? The business that printed the helmet? Or the supplier of materials used in printing? And how do we stop individuals from buying their own 3D printers to produce guns or other illegal objects? These are questions that policymakers need to address as soon as possible, to reassure both consumers and businesses about their legal rights and responsibilities around 3D printing.
There are several other pressing policy considerations that need to be addressed, around sourcing more sustainable materials for use in 3D printers, the pressure on our planning system of having factories located on high-streets, and on the need for world-class digital infrastructure to connect suppliers and users of digital designs.
The government already offers support to many industries, whether it is implicit bail-outs for ‘too big to fail’ banks, or subsidies for research and development in the UK pharmaceutical and defence sectors. What we are arguing for is an equal consideration of those new and exciting technologies with the potential to become the high-growth industries of the future. 3D printing is a prime candidate.
Without an appropriate policy framework for 3D printing, we run the risks of repeating mistakes in dealing with online copyright and file-sharing. It is only now that policy is starting to come to terms with the new digital landscapes of publishing and other media. 3D printing faces similar challenges, but the stakes, a significant proportion of the global manufacturing industry, are much higher. We need the state to be pro-active in confronting the challenges and opportunities around 3D printing, anything else risks missing out on some much needed potential growth.