3D printing is coming – so let's not strangle the industry at birth2016/07/18
3D printing is a big deal. It could – potentially – see local, custom-made goods replacing those produced on assembly lines. It could bring manufacturing jobs back to the UK, and create a world of new opportunities for UK designers. And it might also be a major source of growth in the future, one the government might want to nurture.
But what is 3D printing exactly, and why should we be so excited about it? It allows people to download designs from the internet and turn them into physical objects, building them up layer by layer. Enthusiasts are already making dolls, guitars and – more sinisterly – perhaps even guns, and the technology is advancing all the time. Recent advances mean you can now 3D print in metal and bio-materials, prompting some aerospace and medical firms to make specialised parts with them. This list of uses will only keep growing.
New research by the Big Innovation Centre explores some of the implications of 3D printing. For a start, it allows each product to be customised, getting you closer to exactly what you want than mass-production allows. More importantly, it enables things to be produced where they are needed, rather than assembled in a single factory and shipped around the world.
That could be very good news for the UK economy. It poses a welcome challenge to low-cost manufacturing imports, allowing UK businesses to print bespoke objects rather than make them overseas. It will put a big emphasis on design and online retail, something the UK happens to be very good at. If it takes off, 3D printing could lead to a great many manufacturing jobs being "re-shored" to the UK.
All of this sounds fantastic, but these changes aren't going to happen overnight. 3D printing will throw up some serious issues for the UK's legal system, and government needs to act quickly to avoid strangling this industry at birth.
What are the issues? First, 3D printing poses several challenges to our intellectual property system. If you are – say – printing a smartphone, you will need to use designs from a wide range of different companies, from the microchip to the battery. The current legal system means you would need to engage in costly rights negotiations with a variety of other businesses each time you wanted to produce an object. That is unworkable in a world of 3D printing.
Second, there are pressing questions around regulation. If something goes wrong with your bespoke 3D-printed cycle helmet, who should be at fault? The original designer? The business that printed the helmet? Or the supplier of materials? 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.
Third, new infrastructure, vastly different to the ships and lorries that dominate today's manufacturing industry, will be required. The challenges include sourcing more sustainable materials for use in 3D printers, ensuring our planning system does not prevent 3D printing "factories" being located on high streets, and providing the world-class digital infrastructure to connect suppliers and users of digital designs. The government will have a big role to play in meeting all of these.
Of course, there is no guarantee it will take off in a big way, even with the right support from government. Revolutionary technologies are by their nature uncertain, and trying to predict exactly how they will evolve is near impossible.
But none of this should distract from the government's role. 3D printing exists and, without an appropriate policy framework, we run the risks of repeating mistakes in dealing with online copyright and file-sharing that are only just now being addressed a decade on. 3D printing faces similar challenges, but the stakes, potentially a significant proportion of the global manufacturing industry, are much higher. We need the state to be proactive in confronting the challenges and opportunities. Anything else risks missing out on some much needed growth.