Last night, while watching President Obama tout America’s manufacturing comeback, millions of Americans collectively blurted out “3-D what?!”
Yes, the president said “3-D printing” in his State of the Union address. In fact, he said “A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”
And it does. A 3-D printer is just what it sounds like — it’s a machine that “prints” 3-dimensional objects. The technology, which been anointed the driver of a “third industrial revolution,” deposits thin layers of material — like plastic, glass, and ceramics — over and over again to form complete objects in a single go. The process is called additive manufacturing, which stands in opposition to subtractive manufacturing, the traditional process in which objects are produced at factories by making small parts out of larger pieces of material, like sheets of metal. By allowing people to print objects, rather than drive to a store to buy an object made far away, the technology promises to end the system of large factories and long supply chains in the markets for many goods—and to transform the global economy. Already, scientists are working to figure out how print meals in space and print a moon base with moon dust.
The lab mentioned by the president, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio, was funded in part with $30 million from five federal agencies. The federal government is starting to get acquainted with 3-D printing in a handful of other ways, as well, which is good news, because the technology is going to have wide-reaching policy implications in the years to come. Here’s how:
Currently, the executive branch is well ahead of Congress in anticipating the disruptive effects of 3-D printing. Aside from the 3-D printing lab mentioned by the president, the Commerce Department is working to develop universal standards for many aspects of additive manufacturing processes by next year, and the Army has already deployed 3-D printers in the field in Afghanistan.
But last month, Congress, too, entered the brave new world of 3-D printing after gun enthusiast Cody Wilson uploaded a video of himself on YouTube firing a semiautomatic rifle loaded with a homemade high-capacity magazine. The plastic magazine, manufactured on a 3-D printer, was designed to send a message: Congress, and the Obama administration, can try to ban such magazines, but technology is outpacing efforts at gun control.
Within days, Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., proposed banning 3-D printed gun magazines and firearms that could evade metal detectors as part of a renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act. “We have this new technology that allows criminals and terrorists to buy cheap 3-D printers, use them to literally manufacture firearm components that can fire bullets, and bring them onto airplanes,” he told National Journal last week. “I want to make it harder for the bad guys.”
Of course, a technology that does for objects what the Internet has done for information will present plenty more challenges for regulatory frameworks designed for an economic system in which the production of goods is centralized. Consider how the Internet and CD-burners changed music, then movie, piracy from minor annoyances to industry-shaping forces. Now imagine a future Napster for Hermes handbags, iPhones, and proprietary industrial parts. This may be the first time 3-D printing is the subject of legislation, but it certainly won’t be the last.
There’s already a specific policy proposal taking shape for protecting intellectual property of 3-D printing technology itself. The rapid pace of innovation expected in 3-D printing could require a more agile form of protection, and Attorney William Cass suggests the U.S. could adopt a European-style “utility model” as an option for inventors. The utility model offers all of the rights and protections of a patent but can be obtained more quickly and cheaply, and it only undergoes exhaustive evaluation if challenged in court. The House and Senate Judiciary committees could see the utility model on their agendas in the future: Adoption of the model would require an act of Congress, according to Cass.
3-D printing also holds implications for the half-trillion dollars in annual defense appropriations. Banning Garrett, director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, predicts that rather than purchasing physical equipment and replacement parts, much military spending will be redirected to the purchase of designs. Spare parts will be printed at the point of use as the need arises. “That’s going to hugely reduce the long-term costs of weapons systems,” Garrett said. The technology is also likely to prompt a rethinking of military strategy, he said, as shorter supply lines and the ability to reequip in the field make the world’s military forces more nimble.
3-D printing could also create new anti-terror challenges, as groups might shed the need for state sponsors to keep them armed and supplied, according to a 2011 Atlantic Council paper Garrett coauthored. Garrett though, warned that lawmakers risk stifling the technology if they overreact to its downsides.
3-D printing also appears poised to bring about a global trade rebalancing, as the new economics of manufacturing rewards high-skill workforces like that of the U.S. and make supplies of cheap labor in countries like China less relevant. The committees will also have to adapt U.S. policy to the changing physical footprint of the global trade in goods and parts. “Instead of pushing molecules around, we’re going be pushing bits around,” said Tom Campbell, a professor at Virginia Tech who studies additive manufacturing and coauthored the Atlantic Council paper.
Campbell would like to see Congress take a largely hands-off approach to 3-D printing itself. “The last thing I want to do is have the government clamp down on new rules or laws that impede innovation,” he said. But he does believe countries such as Germany are gaining a competitive edge in certain aspects of the technology, and he sees a need for more government funding for basic research on applications of additive manufacturing that remain in the theoretical stage — like printing 3-D human organs. America, welcome to the future.