Monday, April 15

3D printing is giving an unexpected boost to commerce

The consensus view across various industries has been that increased adoption of this technology would significantly reduce international trade due to the ability of people to produce goods locally.

However, according to research from the University of California, San Diego and the World Bank, while 3D printing can disrupt production processes, supply chains often remain intact.

The study specifically addresses the production of hearing aids, a common product of 3D printing. According to the findings, the switch to 3D printing caused producers’ exports to double or almost double after five years, with the technology being the main cause of the increase in exports.

Also examined were 35 other products, such as running shoes, aircraft components and prosthetics, which are increasingly being 3D printed with similar patterns.

“Technology is a blessing for commerce, not a curse,” said paper co-author Caroline Freund. “One country’s hearing aid exports increased more than trade in other similar goods after manufacturers in that country adopted 3D printing.” Consumers with hearing loss around the world benefit from better, and often cheaper, hearing aids as a result of new manufacturing technology and trade.”

One of the reasons for the expansion is that printing hearing aids in large quantities requires a significant investment in technology and machinery. Early innovators such as Denmark, Switzerland and Singapore dominate exports of this good, while middle-income economies such as China, Mexico and Vietnam have also significantly increased their market shares.

Also, since hearing aids are lightweight products, international shipping is relatively cheap. The same occurs with the other products studied by the authors: lighter products are associated with higher trade growth.

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These conclusions are based on the comparison of the growth of 3D printed products with the growth of other similar goods. The authors also took into account trends and other variables that could skew the data.

“Policymakers often see 3D printing as a way to shorten supply chains when, in fact, it’s more likely to improve trade and reconfigure supply chains,” said Freund, former global director of trade, investment and competitiveness of the World Bank.

Although the analysis of the impact of 3D printing on commerce is positive, it may be temporary. If 3D printers become more accessible to local producers or even consumers in some sectors, production could become more localized, limiting opportunities for development through trade.

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