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Research Briefs | November 24, 2020

Additive Manufacturing: Implications for Technological Change, Workforce Development, and the Product Lifecycle

Haden Quinlan, John Hart


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Additive manufacturing (AM), commonly known as 3D printing, is a cornerstone of a responsive, digitally driven production infrastructure. Though AM has been used for prototyping for decades, it is reaching an inflection point as a mainstream, serial production process. Adoption of AM is improving product development efficiency, manufacturing execution, and product performance. It enables manufacturers to envision futures in which their products are fulfilled on-demand, customized to individual user or regional preferences, and fulfilled via an interconnected network of production facilities distributed around the world. AM also leverages computationally driven design approaches for shape optimization and development of materials with performance surpassing current benchmarks. The United States is well positioned to leverage AM technologies to grow its manufacturing sector’s competency and competitiveness; according to most industry metrics, the United States has established itself as the leader both in AM entrepreneurship and its utilization.

Despite its strong industrial potential, the implementation of AM remains constrained by the technology’s maturity and the skills of the corresponding workforce. Importantly, the fundamental economics of AM, at present, generally constrain its use cases – especially in volume – to those where the manufacturer can afford a cost premium for AM, such as for aerospace components, medical implants, and cosmetic products. This cost premium is offset by improved device performance or the identification of new modes of value delivery. By and large, such applications have required significant investment, and leveraged contributions of an ecosystem of educational institutions, industry stakeholders, and professional organizations.

Beyond its economics, the future growth of AM will be governed by growth in the range of materials it can process, as well as certification methods used for AM components. There will be major improvements in AM equipment both at small and yet realized industrial scales, simplification of its workflow, and development of data-driven quality control systems enabling on-demand production. The automotive and consumer sectors may ultimately be AM’s largest markets many years from now.

AM also presents issues that must be considered by policymakers. AM, in concert with 3D metrology techniques, may simplify the workflow of reverse-engineering components. Home use of the technology compels policymakers to differentiate intellectual property rights where the geometry (and its digital representation) of parts produced by Original Equipment Manufacturers are concerned. Central to this discussion are issues related to the Right-to-Repair movement, as well as the scope of current copyright protection regimes, including the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The same concerns apply not only for personal uses of AM, but for industrial or national uses where the technology may be used for subversive purposes related to corporate espionage or digital warfighting.

Thus, to fully realize the potential of AM, we propose that governing bodies consider the following recommendations:
1. Invest in the full spectrum of basic AM research to applied commercialization.
2. Support small- and medium-sized enterprises to develop AM capacity and expertise.
3. Foster high-quality, workforce-oriented training programs at all levels.
4. Accelerate approaches to open innovation with AM as a fulcrum.
5. Understand and proactively combat the prospective risks of intellectual property piracy, counterfeiting, and reverse engineering.
6. Define through legislation the ownership of digital information and specify the boundaries between consumer and manufacturer rights for product repair.

The text below supports these recommendations, beginning with a discussion introducing AM and benchmarking the technology’s current status. We then articulate the barriers to AM’s adoption. We summarize the implications of AM technologies in driving consumer and industrial value, providing context for why the described challenges must be overcome. Last, we reveal the potential growth trajectories of AM with several industry-specific examples and conclude with a thorough discussion of the policy recommendations.