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.

Now begins the test of the BRICs theory

As emerging market tank on the news that the US Fed is cutting QE purchases by a mere US$10B a month, currencies, bonds and equities from the emerging markets are getting hammered. The question, of course, is if the US and UK economies (and the European economy to a lesser extent) are strong enough to continue their recovery.

Possibly of more interest will be what effect the columns of red have on the emerging world’s rising narrative, which is essentially based on a notion of stable geopolitics permitting unhindered development within Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Quick list: Russia down, China up for now, US tracking sideways – What we know so far



Russia’s options are narrowing. Putin is not stupid but the strong-man tactics will only gain the country so much leverage with his neighbors such as Ukraine. The economy of Russia is smaller than Britain’s, and the basis of Russia’s economic power is weakening.

Even diplomatically, a series of hardline actions towards protesters (Greenpeace, Pussy Riot) have paradoxically hurt Russia by making it look unduly repressive and authoritarian. It’s a shame. The losses suffered by Russia during WWII make it difficult for the outside world to understand the motivations of the country. It’s as if Russia tends to read too many events as threats (gay rights, a desire for reform in Ukraine). Nonetheless, in recent years, this trend of seeing the world through a prism of coercion has led Putin to being unnecessary coercive.


No one disputes that China is in a stronger position than Russia. Even if the economy is wildly unbalanced, the rapidly development of its economy, and the expansion of its trade ties outpaces anything Russia can achieve. But it’s not certain China will achieve actual superpower status, given the amount of disorder and factionalism masked by its system. Outsiders ascribe grand strategies to China’s actions in geopolitics (East China Sea) for example, but it’s possible its military hardened its stance toward the US and Japan precisely because of internal pressures. Likewise, a modern country wouldn’t want to suppress foreign media – and yet again internal sensitivities that go straight to the legitimacy of the ruling elite, are likely behind the crackdown on foreign media. This trend is more in line with a large developing country, rather than an emerging superpower. In a model where the Communist Party stays in power and tries to enforce its rule on a more modern and restive population, China could emerge as a super-economy, rather than super-power. Besides, capable countries don’t link genetic code theft from the US to state visits by their leaders.

United States

It’s been a chaotic decade for the US. After the post-9/11 hysteria helped usher in the War on Iraq, the brains behind the war for Middle East oil conquest must be asking themselves if was worth it, given the impact of the fracking revolution today. For many years the US will be coping with the bad PR generated by that War of Adventure. It was the clearest sign of a superpower out of control.  The diplomatic effect of the Snowden disclosures should help to further isolate the country, giving all allies reason to question the pros and cons of the American-way and American-leadership. Finally, the ideological battles and gridlock between the parties have hurt the country in the global public’s eyes, generating appetite for a counterbalance like China.

If the US succeeds in emerging from the domestic chaos that arguably began with the Monica Lewinsky scandal – or better yet, the result of the 2000 election (both of which undermined its credibility) the US will have an altered role in world politics. Soon it may no longer be the biggest economy. But the sense of a political realignment within the US may mimic a geopolitical realignment. There may once again be space for the US near the center, as a counterbalance to China and Russia, among other things. But it depends if the US can successfully make the transition.

One last thing

…And recall, China’s ascent has occurred during a period of US decline. Should the US reverse that, China may find a much different trade and diplomatic party to contend with. Russia, for now, will be man in the middle.

Personality politics, democracy and a multi-polar world

A short article about the Australian Labor Party’s internal woes, but the headline caught my eye: Closing the chapter on personality politics.

As I’ve contended elsewhere, personality politics seems to thrive when the democracy sees itself in a relative vacuum, with no great pressing issue other than who prevails in the domestic realm. This was true in the 1990s in the US, following the end of the Cold War. This has been true in Australia in recent years, with the non-stop catfight between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard occupying center space in Labor and federal politics.

A rough entry for the current Liberal government headed by Tony Abbott may ensure that the era of personality politics draws to a close sooner, rather than later. It’s not that Abbott and gang are above the fray, either. Rather, the issue of geopolitical order is reasserting itself as a primary concern. Not only have Abbott’s kind words for Japan raised eyebrows in China and domestically (China, Australia’s biggest two-way trade partner, has a long memory for slights) but now the fracas with Indonesia about turning back refugees has emerged. That stand-off, which has ended with Australia, not Indonesia, blinking, comes only months after the Liberals came to power. It also comes before a presidential election in Indonesia. But what has really stirred the pot are the disclosures of Australia’s involvement in snooping on Indonesian affairs in conjunction with the US, through the Five Eyes intelligence agreement.

In other words, issues much bigger than personality politics.

In its own way, Snowden’s legacy may be to help refocus the world’s attention on who is allied with whom, creating embarrassment and tension among neighbors, particularly at a point when the geopolitical order is being upset by the rise of Asia.