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.