Can US Hold Its Lead on 3D Printing?

By / 8.23.2013

Everyone is abuzz about 3D printing. President Obama gave it a shout out in his most recent State of the Union address. The Economist hailed it as a harbinger of a “3rd industrial revolution.” UPS is putting 3D printers in its retail stores. Some analysts think it’s the key to reviving advanced manufacturing in America.

With 60% of the global market, there’s no doubt that U.S. firms dominate the fledgling market for 3D printers. But as with other breakthrough technologies hatched in America, there’s no guarantee that our competitors – yes, especially China – won’t catch up and eventually surpass us. After all, China is a manufacturing powerhouse that desperately wants to move up the value chain, and has few scruples about filching U.S. technology.

Although 3D printing is still in its infancy, Washington needs a strategy for maintaining U.S. leadership as other countries strive to catch up. Its key elements should include robust public investment in 3D research, and beefed up safeguards against intellectual property theft.

3D printing – known in the trade as additive manufacturing –fuses successive layers of material, most commonly plastic, into what are now fairly crude, three-dimension objects. Tech visionaries have high, if not inflated, expectations of a world in which virtually anything can be reproduced by a 3D printer. That’s far down the line, but we already have some intriguing inklings of what’s possible. Researchers at Princeton, for example, printed a bionic ear from bovine cells, silicone and silver particles. At GE, sophisticated airplane parts have been printed, rather than machine tooled, making them lighter and more aerodynamic. Right now, 3D printers are especially appealing to manufacturers who use rapid prototyping in developing new products, because they can achieve unprecedented levels of customization while using material far more efficiently than traditional “subtractive” methods.

Global sales of 3D printers are exploding. According to the authoritative Wohlers Report, sales are expected to triple, from $2 to $6 billion over the next four years. The largest U.S. manufacturers are Stratasys and 3D Systems, based in Minnesota and South Carolina respectively. Together they hold about 70% of the global market share for production. Both companies produce personal printers for home use and professional grade ones for high-tech manufacturers. 3D Systems holds more than 400 patents and was ranked 4th on Forbes list of America’s 25 Fastest-Growing Tech Companies. Nonetheless, the Wohlers Report warns that “The U.S. is losing its leadership position in terms of additive manufacturing equipment production.” It notes that of the leading 3D printer makers, 16 are now in Europe, seven are based in China and just five remain in the US. On top of that, important 3D printer patents will expire soon. As U.S. firms lose their first mover advantage, look for an influx of cheaper Chinese 3D printers.

Intellectual property theft is a growing concern for U.S. manufacturers. According to the IP Commission Report, from the National Bureau of Asian Research, U.S. businesses lose $300 billion a year from IP theft by foreign countries, with China the main culprit. In trade talks this summer, China agreed to crack down on IP theft and cyber espionage and to negotiate a bilateral investment treaty (BIT) with the United States. Signing such a treaty would force the Chinese to open their market to American businesses with stronger safeguards on technology transfer.

3D printing could also be a boon for China’s massive counterfeiting industry. With the aid of printers that turn out more refined products, what are now fairly crude sweatshop -style operations could evolve into high-tech black market fabricating shops. There is also mounting worry about online piracy. Without tough enforcement of copyright laws, U.S. manufacturers may face unfair competition from companies using stolen designs.

Even without IP theft, however, China is likely to prove a formidable competitor in 3D printing. Luo Jun, secretary general of the China 3D Printing Technology and Industry Alliance, boasts that China will match 2012 global output within three years. The Alliance was created as part of a government- funded research and development program that is allocating 20 million Yuan ($3.3-million) each to 10 research institutes over the next seven years. The first of these institutes that will eventually house large, industrial printers is located at the Zijin High-tech Zone in Nanjing. The institute will host some of the top research teams in China, including one from Northwestern Polytechnic Institute which has successfully printed complex titanium alloy airplane parts. It underscores China’s determination to break into the aerospace industry.

Unfortunately, overall federal spending on science and technology has fallen by 13 percent over the past two years, as Congress and the White House have battled over debt reduction. Between the sequester and GOP threats to shut down the government this fall, the squeeze on R&D investment is unlikely to abate. Republican austerians also have balked at President Obama’s request for $1 billion to fund a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, including a $45 million 3D research institute in Youngstown, Ohio. By refusing to acknowledge the critical role government plays in developing new technology – like the Internet – GOP budget cutters deprive U.S. businesses and students alike of the tools to stay on top of advanced manufacturing.

Progressives should fight to restore and maintain robust public investment in 3D research and development. As is often the case, the Pentagon, through its Advanced Research and Projects Agency (DARPA) is on the leading edge. For example, DARPA funds the Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach Program (MENTOR), which will enlist high-schoolers to help the military create inexpensive parts for its “next generation infantry fighting vehicle.” The students’ ideas will be sent to Georgia Tech, which will work with commercial 3D manufacturers to ramp up large-scale production. This crowdsourcing approach, if widely replicated, has the potential to inspire more young Americans to acquire the technical skills necessary to bolster digital and advanced manufacturing in the U.S.

China is well aware that its cheap labor advantage will not be enough to sustain its industrial growth as 3D printing and other digital technologies begin to transform manufacturing of all kinds. With smart investments in digital manufacturing and technical education, as well as tough enforcement of intellectual property laws, the U.S. can keep ahead of the competition and maybe even bring manufacturing jobs back to our shores.