Transformative technologies are the stuff of history. The steam engine, the light bulb, atomic energy, the microchip—to name a few—unalterably changed our world. Such breakthroughs often take decades from initial invention to changing the way we do things, however. And their potential impact can be nearly unimaginable early in the process. It is doubtful that Tim Berners-Lee in his wildest dreams imagined what the World Wide Web would do to our global “operating system” when he invented it 20 years ago. And even the widely celebrated, mourned and missed Steve Jobs who died last week certainly had no idea that the Apple II that he and Steve Wozniak rolled out of their garage into the marketplace in 1977 would lead to transformation of the computer industry and eventually the way we create, we communicate, we compute, and we experience music—and in the process would build the world’s most valuable public company.     

Now another new technology is gaining traction that also may change the world. 3D Printing/Additive Manufacturing (AM) is a revolutionary emerging technology that could up-end the last two centuries of approaches to design and manufacturing with profound geopolitical, economic, social, demographic, environmental and security implications. As explained in this piece, AM builds products layer-by-layer—additively—rather than by subtracting material from a larger piece of material like cutting out a landing gear from a block of titanium—that is, “subtractive” manufacturing. Imagine your color inkjet printer with cartridges filled with metal powder, ceramic material, resin, and silicon squirting from the various nozzles instead of ink. Now rather than the paper moving on after one squirt, the nozzles move back over the previous layer and add another layer on top, then yet another layer, continuing this process until a three-dimensional, multi-material product emerges.  

This seemingly small distinction—adding rather than subtracting—means everything.  

This potential revolution in manufacturing may take a decade or more to mature and become ubiquitous, but it could profoundly change our world in the next 10-20 years. Here are some of the implications of AM that that are discussed in the article: 

  • Assembly lines and supply chains can be reduced or eliminated for many products. The final product—or large pieces of a final product like a car—can be produced by AM in one process unlike conventional manufacturing in which hundreds or thousands of parts are assembled. And those parts are often shipped from dozens of factories from around the world—factories which may have in turn assembled their parts from parts supplied by other factories. 
  • Designs, not products, would move around the world as digital files to be printed anywhere by any printer that can meet the design parameters. The Internet first eliminated distance as a factor in moving information and now AM eliminates it for the material world. Just as a written document can be emailed as a PDF and printed in 2D, an “STL” design file can be sent instantly to the other side of the planet via the Internet and printed in 3D.
  • Products could be printed on demand without the need to build-up inventories of new products and spare parts. 
  • A given manufacturing facility would be capable of printing a huge range of types of products without retooling—and each printing could be customized without additional cost. 
  • Production and distribution of material products could begin to be de-globalized as production is brought closer to the consumer.
  • Manufacturing could be pulled away from “manufacturing platforms” like China back to the countries where the products are consumed, reducing global economic imbalances as export countries’ surpluses are reduced and importing countries’ reliance on imports shrink. 
  • The carbon footprint of manufacturing and transport as well as overall energy use in manufacturing could be reduced substantially and thus global “resource productivity” greatly enhanced and carbon emissions reduced.
  • Reduced need for labor in manufacturing could be politically destabilizing in some economies while others, especially aging societies, might benefit from the ability to produce more goods with fewer people while reducing reliance on imports.
  • The United States, the current leader in AM technology, could experience a renaissance in innovation, design, IP exports, and manufacturing, enhancing its relative economic strength and geopolitical influence.  

Will 3D Printing indeed change the world in these and other profound ways? Of course, it remains to be seen. But the foreign policy, defense and intelligence communities need to expand their horizons think beyond the world of technological gadgets like military drones, however “game changing” they may be on the battlefield, to look at systemic change that can be produced by new technologies. The Internet, originally ARPANET development by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to connect major research centers and provide computer access geographically separated researchers, morphed into a set of technologies and capabilities that has transformed nearly every aspect of life on the planet, from how businesses and governments operate to the personal lives of nearly everyone, especially the more than 2 billion Internet users. 

AM has already been viewed by the military as a potential technology for specific tasks such as producing spare parts to reduce inventories carried by ships that could have huge efficiency and cost-saving benefits. But the foreign policy and defense and intelligence communities need to also look more systematically at how new technologies such as AM could transform the world in fundamental ways that affect the global economy, foreign policy and the overall strategic and security environment, as have the Internet, the PC, GPS, and the cell phone.   

We hope this publication on AM, which explains and explores both the technical aspects of AM and the broader economic, environmental, geopolitical and security aspects of AM, along with other work of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, can advance the dialogue and understanding between the science and technology communities and the foreign policy, intelligence and defense communities and help provide foresight into the policy implications of a world being transformed by new technologies at an accelerating rate that is likely to produce a world far more profoundly altered in the next two decades than it has been in the last half century of astonishing technological change.

Banning Garrett is the director of the Asia Program and Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council. This piece was also posted on the Strategic Foresight Initiative’s Disruptive Change Blog.