3DP Who knows bes?
The Big Innovation Centre, an initiative of The Work Foundation and Lancaster University has released a report entitled ‘Three Dimensional Policy: Why Britain needs a policy framework for 3D printing’. The full report makes for interesting, if sometimes uncomfortable, reading.
The report aims to outline the need for governmental intervention in all aspects of ‘3D printing’ from the home user to the multinational company. While 3D printing is the catch-all term used, the report at various times interchanges this with ‘additive manufacturing’. In chapter two the authors state that ‘Additive manufacturing, the technique on which 3D printing is based, involves building products up layer by layer using a range of different materials.’ Little attention is thus paid to the different technologies, and a lay reader would be doing very well to figure out exactly what was being talked about here.
In part, this becomes a self-justifying proposition — by representing ‘3D printing’ in such nebulous terms, the proposed need for a coherent policy framework is strengthened.
The press release that promoted the release of the report states in the opening sentence that, ‘The government needs a plan for the arrival of 3D printing, to ensure that the UK can reap the full economic benefits of this revolutionary technology and to address risks such as illegal gun production.’ Illegal gun production? Is this one of the most significant challenges associated with 3D printing? Surely minimising environmental impact should be up there in the first line, but not guns. Sadly it seems that the report and the recommendations are tainted somewhat by the hype of the moment.
The overall message here appears to be — 3D printing may be, in some form, important in some way to some people and those effects could, via unknown routes, impact on the UK economy. So we need to have lots of meetings in London.
I may be being a little unfair. This report is intended as a way to start a debate on 3D printing at a policy level, something that is currently lacking. However the non-committal language, speculation, theory and supposition means that the reader really is no better off than before reading.
Claiming that ‘3D printing will place major strains on laws and government policy in the UK’ is all well and good, but without a hint of a timeframe (or even a likelihood) it’s all so much bluff and bluster. If, overnight, everyone decided that what they really wanted were rough, single colour copies of objects that were protected by some level of IP then yes, there may be a problem. However, I could still be breaking IP laws by making my own Mickey Mouse toy by any other means — means that are available in almost any home and accessible to everyone such as needle, thread, scissors, etc.
Likewise, I could break copyright laws by downloading images from the Internet and printing them on my 2D printer. Clarifying the extent to which 3D files are covered would be useful, but any reproduction of a production part with 3D printing is going to be either a) not a good enough reproduction to be viable or b) not cheap enough to be viable. Problems will arise if ‘3D printers’ reach the stage where they can knock out faithful reproductions of parts, cheaply, and in the right materials. We’re a way off that yet, and so much may change in the time being that talking ifs, buts and maybes at governmental level would surely be a waste of taxpayer money.
Money that could, for example, get a low-cost 3D printer into every school. But would that help the UK compete where 3D printing is used as a manufacturing tool? Perhaps the money could go towards a UK version of the Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, recently launched in the US an already drawing investment from commercial partners…
To an extent this report rests heavily on the current belief that 3D printing will quickly revolutionise everything from toys to games to aeroplanes in a manner that could be either beneficial, detrimental or in most predictions, both. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Where government could be really useful here is by ensuring that the current stakeholders in AM and 3D printing have access to the resources they need, including high quality engineers, to develop the processes and materials and get them to market. The best way of ensuring that the UK doesn’t miss the ‘huge growth opportunities’ of 3D printing is not to concentrate efforts on 3D printing, but on wider manufacturing. At this point the markets (including consumers) will make up their minds.
Where the government could be really unhelpful is wrapping the fledgling technologies red tape and cotton wool.
PS: Out of curiosity, does anyone know where I can find governmental policies on CNC machines, drills, hacksaws and cotton thread?