Could 3D printing change the world?

Could 3D Printing Change the World? Technologies, Potential, and Implications of Additive Manufacturingis the latest Strategic Foresight Initiative Report, co-authored by Thomas Campbell, Christopher Williams, Olga Ivanova, and Banning Garrett.

A new technology is emerging that could change the world. 3D Printing/Additive Manufacturing (AM) is a revolutionary technology that could profoundly alter the geopolitical, economic, social, demographic, environmental, and security landscape of the international system. AM builds products layer-by-layer—additively—rather than subtracting material from a larger piece of material—that is, “subtractive” manufacturing. 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 ten to twenty years.   

Could 3D Printing Change the World? Technologies, Potential, and Implications of Additive Manufacturing explores the technology of AM and its broader implications, which include:

  • Assembly lines and supply chains could be reduced or eliminated for many products. AM can produce the final product—or large pieces of a final product— in one process.
  • Designs, not products, would move around the world as digital files are printed anywhere with any printer to meet design parameters.  A “STL” design file can be sent via the Internet and printed in 3D.
  • Products could be printed on demand without the need for inventories.
  • A given manufacturing facility would be capable of printing a huge range of products without retooling—and each printing could be customized without additional cost. 
  • Production and distribution of material products could become 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. The military already views AM as a potential technology for specific tasks which could have huge efficiency and cost-saving benefits, such as the production of spare parts to reduce inventories carried by ships. But the foreign policy and defense and intelligence communities must look more systematically at how new technologies such as AM could transform the world in fundamental ways that affect the global economy, societies, and the overall strategic and security environment. The authors of this Strategic Foresight Report hope to advance the dialogue and understanding between the science and technology communities and the foreign policy, intelligence and defense communities and provide foresight into the policy implications of the accelerating rate with which new technologies are changing our world.

Related Experts: Campbell, Thomas A.

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