3Dprinting: A Mediterranean Future?

Few subjects generate the kind of hype that 3Dprinting does. Its advocates claim it will reshape the world of manufacturing and by extension, the global economy. Skeptics ask whether 3Dprinting will prove to be this era’s lasers. When lasers were first commercialized in the 1970s and 1980s, there was excited talk about how the technology would transform the world (lasers writing advertisements on clouds, etc). Although that technology has matured considerably in the past decades, we still don’t seem to be living in the “laser-age.”

3Dprinted glasses. DWS Systems in Vicenza.
3Dprinted glasses. DWS Systems in Vicenza.

Will 3Dprinting be different? It’s impossible to say. But a quick search of the term shows, if nothing else, the dizzying array of potential applications for the technology, which does suggest it could have a wide impact. And if 3Dprinting has a big global impact the natural question to ask is: who will benefit? It’s an essential geopolitical question.

Analyst Alex Chausovsky of IHS-APAC writes that China used 3Dprinting in the production of its J-25 Ghost Bird fighter, creating a rival to the US F-22 Raptor. As with most Chinese military claims, independent verification is needed. Nonetheless, the potential is real for 3Dprinting to not just fast-track weapons development but to reorder economies and the relative importance of national skill sets. Chausovsky writes:

In addition to its influence on competition between countries, 3D printing technology also has major implications for national security, geopolitics, and other sensitive aspects of global inter-country relations and interactions.

One element to 3Dprinting you have to remember is that if it’s impact is profound, it won’t necessarily super-charge existing manufacturing abilities but fundamentally alter the equation of what makes up good manufacturing. In this shift, the role of design

D-Shape's Enrico Dini: The technology can 3Dprint buildings in freeform.
D-Shape’s Enrico Dini: The technology can 3Dprint buildings in freeform.

and information will be elevated, as the capacity for large scale production becomes less critical. After all, there could be a lot of economic growth centered around customized, rather than mass produced, goods.

Of the presumed rising economic powers, the BRICs nations, only Brasil stands out as having a relatively noteworthy design history. (BRICs stands for Brazil, Russia, India and China). Countries whose design heritage is strong and whose work is still sought globally today stand out – and some of those are the mature economies well-outside the BRICs grouping. Nations like Spain and Italy come to mind. Spain and Italy are all struggling with slow growth, demographic challenges and huge public debts. In other words, these are countries under profound pressure for structural economic reform already – the ones that should be most open to embracing new industries for growth.

In fact, in an environment where 3Dprinting develops and matures into new industries, today’s ‘inevitably rising’ economies may struggle. Chausovsky writes:

“In China’s case, a low-cost manufacturing model, which led to a period of unprecedented growth for its economy over the past several decades, is already under stress due to increasing workers’ wages, which have risen by an average annual rate of 15 per cent in recent years. What will happen to this model if goods are no longer “made in China”, but instead printed locally to take advantage of significant savings on shipping and logistics costs? This certainly has to worry the country’s government, which has kept its massive population relatively appeased by the ongoing promise of economic growth and the associated improvement in quality of life.”

In his report on Asian investment in 3D printing technology, one country’s approach stands out: South Korea wants to train 10 million creative makers by 2020. Whether South Korea will achieve the goal or not, the fact that a nation famous for its mass animation work wants to turn its attention to 3Dprinting creativity is notable. I think the South Koreans are right in betting that the success of the technology will most likely call for many more designers on deck to exploit the personalized, customized options the technology offers.

Print on demand from Barcelona.
Print on demand from Barcelona.

But along these lines, again look to the Mediterranean and cultures like those found in Italy and Spain which are steeped in the handcrafted arts of leather, painting, mosaics, marble cutting, masonry, even cooking. In a word, the tactile arts. The reason people pay more for Italian-designed and made spectacles and Spanish-designed and crafted Camper shoes, may well be the same reason people pay for 3D-printed designs from those countries: they look and feel better, the national brand conveys a sense of style and craftsmanship, and finally, the design may just be more thoughtful. And recall, 3D printing will be a blend of data and materials, with the data being a significant part of the value.

If and when the industry matures and scales up, people in places in Italy and Spain may be the most inclined to have the skills to be successful 3print-makers and designers. The building blocks of the skill set may already be in place in Mediterranean cultures.

Free data, freer makers

There is another element in this too which makes Mediterranean nations stand out. A robust 3Dprinting industry, in which household goods, clothes, tools, and even a mythical Product X, are created on demand to personalized requirements will require masses of information to be shared easily and freely. In other words, for a country to have a successful 3Dprinting industry that can produce breakthroughs and new designs there must be as few constraints on data as possible.

Fab Lab Trento in Italy ( http://www.makeinitaly.foundation/what-is-a-fablab/?lang=en)
Fab Lab Trento in Italy (www.makeinitaly.foundation)

In authoritarian nations like Russia and China, controls on the internet are tightening. In as much as 3Dprinting is the blend between data and manufacturing, data part of the mix may run into inhibitions in places like Russia and China.

Basically, this would come down to fears that 3Dprinting technology can be used to subvert or overthrow the state (think 3Dprinted guns) or more likely industries of value to the government. So, governments in places like China and Russia want to keep an eye on what kind of data is being shared, how the products are being used, etc.

In Mediterranean countries, which enjoy strong design history, this constraint on data doesn’t exist.

Nonetheless, it’s far from clear Italy and Spain can capitalize on 3Dprinting to make it a new industry.

In fact, there are a couple risks.

The governments may not embrace the technology as a central tool in a new industry. They may make the environment too hostile to small businesses and start-

Olivetti typewriter from 1969 - made technology accessible through innovative design (photo: MakeInItaly)
Olivetti typewriter from 1969 – made technology accessible through innovative design (photo: MakeInItaly)

ups, or in fact, youth. The smallish Australian town I live in has a pizzeria staffed by five or six young Italians who clearly are better off economically working in a a restaurant in Australia than waiting for career jobs back at home. At work in Melbourne, I once received a cold call for work from a young Spanish journalist who, upon being laid off in Barcelona, realized his chance of finding work was better in Australia than in Europe. Too many young Italians and Spaniards are moving abroad because of out-of-control youth unemployment. So there is a risk that even if the Spanish and Italian governments get serious about backing 3Dprinting, risks and all, they will find the pool of potential young 3D printing designers, makers, and inventors diminished.

What 3Dprinting still lacks is the magical Product X; the must-have object that can only be made through 3Dprinting. My sense is that whatever the product turns out to be will involve some level of personalization and style – both of which favor the Mediterranean and Japanese design economies. But I also see a link between this mythical Product X and youth, who can envision new uses for technology that are often invisible to their elders.

As noted in an earlier post, geopolitics may be another catalyst for the industry. In addition to Chinese jet fighters, the Russians have proven they can 3Dprint their way around import-restrictions, even if they aren’t currently doing so. US rocket makers Dynetics and Aerojet Rocketdyne are building an engine to replace Russian-made RD-180s and using 3Dprinting to compress the design and production time.

Should 3Dprinting become the Next Big Thing, it will move the discussion around BRICs vs non-BRICs, even between the “inevitable” rise of Asia and the decline of the Europe. Am I right? Am I wrong? I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Please contact me at @chrizap.

China to launch a moon mission this week

The moonChina is expected to launch a fresh lunar mission this week, which will, according to Xinhua “test technology likely to be used in Chang’e-5, a future lunar probe with the ability to return to Earth.” Xinhua said it will happen between Friday and Sunday.

(Hit tip, our friend, Dr Morris Jones.)

Dr Jones believes China is “also testing technology for a future Chinese astronaut launch to the Moon.” More on his views here.

While it’s exciting for China, it basically mimics past missions by the US and Russia. As Neal Stephenson noted in his innovation essay:

China is frequently cited as a country now executing on Big Stuff, and there’s no doubt they are constructing dams, high-speed rail systems, and rockets at an extraordinary clip. But those are not fundamentally innovative. Their space program, like all other countries’ (including our own), is just parroting work that was done 50 years ago by the Soviets and the Americans.

The big question, of course, is who will push further into space with more ambitious human missions and new technologies for travel? The Chinese space program also underscores the effect of such efforts on perceptions of geopolitical success, the astropolitik.





3D printing in the time of economic sanctions       

Russian models in 3D printed lingerie and geopolitics wouldn’t seem to be a natural match. Not at first glance, anyway. But new technology blends data with manufacturing to form new market possibilities. Today there are about a dozen 3D printing companies in Moscow, where the industry, like elsewhere, remains in its infancy. Moscow Times details how one company, 3DPrintus, printed underwear after Russia’s Parliament banned underwear made of synthetic lace. The ban is not sanctions-related. But the prospect of 3D printing in Russia raises the question of whether it can or will be used to get around shortages of specific goods caused by economic retaliations for Russian actions in Eastern Ukraine. Theoretically, Russia could use 3D printing to create certain manufactured goods they can no longer import.

Bra and geopolitics- a still from Donald Fagen's New Frontier video.
Underwear and geopolitics- a still from Donald Fagen’s New Frontier video.

One of the reasons this is interesting to watch is because these sorts of constraints and imperatives are the type of catalyst that can help industries take a step forward. Such situations are often caused by wars, or in this case, a kind of low-fever Cold War. Right now, governments, makers and businesses are interested in 3D printing. But what 3D printing’s crucial application will be remains a mystery.

Historically, it was this imperative, external to the technology and the economies, that jump-started new industries and technologies. (That’s true in everything from plastics to computers.) The technology existed in an early form but the governments lacked the will, funds and focus to form new inventions with it. The British government was willing to spend enormous sums for a codebreaking during WWI. Why? Because Nazis were pulverizing Britain with bombs. In turn, the British made advances in computing. Some of those Nazi bombs, author Neal Stephenson contends, propelled by rockets helped ultimately establish the rocket as the primary way to launch craft into space. He writes:

There is no way, of course, to guess how rockets might have developed, or failed to, were it not for the fact that, during the 1940s, the world’s most technically sophisticated nation was under the absolute control of a crazy dictator who decreed that vast physical and intellectual resources should be hurled into the project of creating rockets of hitherto unimagined size.

These rockets, which were known as V-2s, were worse than useless from a military standpoint, in the sense that the same resources would have produced a much greater effect had they been devoted instead to the production of U-boats or Messerschmitts.

In other words, it’s not just the technology and science – it’s the external driver that causes a new technology to be taken up. In the case of rockets, it was Hitler’s government’s zeal for the technology in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, the growing East-West political split may play a similar role. And here 3Dprinting comes to mind, and not simply with Russia, either.

Made In Space is the company behind 3Dprinting on the ISS.
Made In Space is the company behind 3Dprinting on the ISS.

Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned the West that sanctions will backfire and “boomerang” back onto the economies that impose them. This is a big concern in Europe already suffering from feeble economic growth and the prospects of a cold winter if Russia decides to cut off its supply of gas. But the leading edge of this boomerang-effect is, so far, in space. In retaliation for Western sanctions, Russia is ending space cooperation with the US – a cornerstone of the post-Cold War order.

After announcing Russia’s planned pull-out from the ISS, Russia has threatened to stop transporting astronauts (and of course, equipment) to the International Space Station. The Russian countermeasures are forcing NASA and its private sector partners to embrace more risk in order to move ahead with programs.

NASA’s decision to transport a 3Dprinter to the space station isn’t related to any international friction. But the US decision does open a new vista of options for how to get specific tools to the ISS, which otherwise would rely on transportation, potentially by Russians. For more, watch a video of the company enabling the project.

In the process of this undertaking, the US will probably learn a lot about the possibilities of remote manufacturing. This could have a profound impact on the way people on earth acquire goods. It could speed up the disruption of supply chains and allow industries and communities on Earth to flourish in ways impossibly only a few years ago. And so the availability of technology is not enough to make progress occur. There need to be external pressures. Needs for tools in space, weapons in Russian armaments, and of course lingerie on models.