Is 3D Printing a Threat to Your Business?

A recent report suggests 3D printing will wipe out 22% of global trade

For the most part, 3D printing has been touted as a positive disruptive force. Not only has the technology made it possible to create specialist and often lifesaving products – it’s challenged the boundaries of design and manufacturing. In combination with a surge of interest in Materials Science, 3D printing is revolutionising production to the benefit of both companies and consumers.

However, there are those who are decidedly less optimistic. In a recent report, ‘3D printing: a threat to global trade’, ING (International Netherlands Group) concluded that by 2060, 3D printing will wipe out 22 per cent of global trade. The report was based on the statistical findings of Wohlers Associates and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), as well as expert opinions.

3D printing for mass production
Today, 3D printing comprises 0.7 per cent of worldwide manufacturing. The suggestion that this could reach 50 per cent in just over four decades seems naïve, especially when you consider other statistics. For example, in 2016, companies spent $6.6b on 3D printing and related services. This sounds like a hefty investment until you compare it to the $6,700b that was spent on traditional machinery. That’s a 1,000 fold difference. ING also spoke to a number of experts from businesses that use or supply 3D printing services. They all expressed uncertainty about when 3D printers would be ready, if ever, to deliver mass production in all industries. So, alongside hype over the domination of 3D print technology, it’s important to recognise that it’s still in its infancy.

What’s holding 3D printing back?
While ING’s report suggests that 3D printing has the potential to take over half of global manufacturing, there are numerous obstacles in the way. Some of the major challenges include finding employees with the right skill sets, affording expensive raw materials, transitioning from traditional infrastructures and various other setbacks surrounding economic viability. At the moment, industries may be able to adopt 3D printing, but it’s pointless to do so as many traditional methods are still cheaper. If the 2060 benchmark is to be hit, then the quality of 3D printing techniques needs to increase while price does the opposite. This, as always, relies on investment. According to ING’s report, investment in 3D printing has been three times higher than in traditional machinery for the last five years. In other words, it doesn’t look like finding finance is going to be a massive problem. One reason for this is the effect of reduced global trade on trade deficits. For countries who rely on revenue from exports, the reduction in cross border trade is a problem. However, for countries who have larger import markets (like the US), this will benefit local production and employment levels. Once the governments of these countries realise this, then official support of 3D printing is only likely to increase.

Does 3D printing threaten trade?
ING certainly thinks so, and they’ve got the numbers to prove it. If world trade does face a serious reduction, then there is a chance that it won’t be able to keep up with GDP. But a reduction in cross border trade could have positive consequences – as could easing off on economic expansion as a whole. Whichever way you look at it, it all depends on adoption. If 3D printing can avoid the pitfalls of hype and continue to improve, then the adoption curve should run smoothly. That being said, there’s a substantial list of setbacks that, up to now, have limited that technology’s potential. Responding to these issues will be a gradual task.

In short, ING’s report is a balanced and fair review of an ambiguous situation. Although investment and interest is consistent, traditional machinery appears to be more economically viable at this point in time. It remains unclear as to when 3D printing will be able to take on mass production, and the benchmark year of 2060 is described in the report as a ‘conservative estimate’. What we can be sure of, however, is that the potential effects on global trading will lead to fundamental questions about the economy itself.

Will 3D printing take over half of global trade by 2060? Has ING’s report underestimated or overestimated the disruptive potential of 3D print technology? Will 3D printing be able to live up to the hype? Tell us what you think.