3D Printing: Getting the UK a Bigger Share of the Next Big Thing

October 15, 2012

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. 3D printing will put major strains on the UK’s legal framework, and the government must move quickly to adopt supportive policies so that the UK does not get left behind. This is according to a report published on 16 October by the business-backed Big Innovation Centre. The report aims to set out a comprehensive policy framework for 3D printing. 

3D printing – the ability to translate a digital file into a physical object – is predicted by many to transform key British industries with a combined GVA of nearly £70 billion – more than half of all UK manufacturing – over the next decade. The report authors believe that 3D printing could bring a host of benefits to the UK, including shifting manufacturing jobs back to Britain, reducing the environmental impact of the goods we consume, and offering consumers far greater choice. It will also challenge the traditional model of mass production in manufacturing, enabling many objects to be made close to where they are needed. The industries most likely to be disrupted by these changes include textiles and clothing, pharmaceuticals, rubber and plastics, machinery and furniture industries. 

Radical thinking will be required if government policy is to keep pace with the development of the technology. The report raises serious concerns about the UK’s readiness to cope with 3D printing, including the need for a more flexible intellectual property system, incentives for investors and designers and the need for regulation so that the government can prevent 3D printers being used to produce guns and illegal objects.  

Andrew Sissons, report co-author and researcher at the Big Innovation Centre, said:  

‘3D printing will place major strains on laws and government policy in the UK. The government must begin planning a policy framework for 3D printing, one which promotes innovation and prepares the ground for a mass market in 3D printing. The government must adopt a smarter and more flexible approach to intellectual property rights and regulation so that companies can function profitably in our digital age. 3D printing will shatter the barrier between the internet and the physical world, and the law will no longer be able to distinguish easily between the two. If the government wants to regulate guns and other dangerous items in the age of 3D printing, it will need a radically different approach. The experience of the music industry should act as a warning for policy makers here. Government policy was slow to adapt to the digitisation of music and it enforced outdated copyright laws rather than seeking reforms that promote innovation. Manufacturing, the industry that 3D printing will disrupt, is far more important than the music industry and the risks have far more serious implications so the government cannot afford to ignore these issues for any longer.’ 

Spencer Thompson, report co-author and researcher at the Big Innovation Centre, said: ‘The potential economic implications of the technology are huge. 3D printing will play to the UK’s strengths in design, retail and digital industries, putting Britain in a strong position to be a world leader. It could also shake up the way we do manufacturing, replacing mass production with localised manufacturing and potentially bringing manufacturing jobs back to the UK. From the production of household goods to transplanted organs, the possibilities are endless. The government must not ignore this opportunity to inject some much needed growth into the UK economy.’ 

The report, Three Dimensional Policy: Why Britain needs a policy framework for 3D printing examines what 3D printing markets might look like in the future, outlining how they are likely to be used in homes, 3D printing shops and existing factories with wide-ranging repercussions. It can be read in full here. It identifies six key policy challenges that the government must address in relation to 3D printing: 

·        Intellectual property – creating an IP system that is fit for internet markets, while providing suitable incentives to inventors and designers;

·        Regulation – preventing 3D printing being used for dangerous ends, without stifling the growth of the market;

·        Legal responsibility – setting out a clear framework of responsibility and liability when things go wrong with 3D printed items;

·        Standards – developing effective standards that enable companies to collaborate and build consumer confidence;

·        Materials – running competitions to expand the range of materials available to 3D printers;

·        Infrastructure – providing experimental labs, digital infrastructure and other support to ensure 3D printing markets can work. 

The report goes on to recommend the following first steps for the government to begin tackling these challenges: 

·        Create a 3D printing task force, led by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and able to bring together ideas from business and academia, while coordinating the various levers of government policy;

·        Scope out a review of the intellectual property implications of 3D printing, building on the work of the Hargreaves Review;

·        Fund the set-up of more pilot 3D printing workshops, to enable members of the public to experiment with the technology;

·        Explore the feasibility of a digital design exchange, analogous to the mooted digital copyright exchange;

·        Provide funding for competitions to develop new materials for 3D printing; and

·       Commission research and feasibility studies into possible methods for regulating 3D printing markets, particularly with regard to the production of dangerous items.