Monday, April 06, 2015

The Political Economy of 3D Printing...

3D printing has transformative potential.  It will shift manufacturing away from assembly lines, shift economic control away from those with immense amounts of capital who own those assembly lines, and will instead empower a manufacturing-to-the-masses movement.  Surely, these developments are certain to disrupt, if not destroy, existing economic and political institutions, right?  At least, such are the claims that technologists have been raving about when it comes to 3D printing for several years now.

Although technology pundits have been engaged in this vision-forecasting, there remains a remarkable lack of scholarship addressing the potential consequences of 3D printing that might begin to match that of the passionate 3D printing enthusiasts.  A quick search on Google Scholar reveals that almost all the academic literature focuses on its technical specifications, and almost none on the sociopolitical implications.

The one area showing some early promise is that of Political Economy.  In New Orleans a few weeks ago, Greek scholars Pierrakakis, Gkritzali, Kandias, and Gritzalis submitted a paper to the International Studies Association Annual Conference titled 3D Printing: A Paradigm Shift in Political Economy.

Three "impact areas" are identified.  First, in terms of production and manufacturing, they argue that 3D printing will foster the trend toward "increasing product design freedom" and that on-demand production has "the capacity to drive a change in tastes".  At the very least, it's not unreasonable to suggest that a shift away from mass manufacturing and towards mass customization will likely have serious consequences on current manufacturing states like China.  Ultimately, it will be designs, not products, that move around the world.  And the geopolitics will have to adjust.

Second, in terms of work, tradeable goods will be transformed into commodities. The example given is that there would be no need for someone with a 3D printer to buy plates, cups, or other everyday objects, and thus several areas of traditional manufacturing will struggle to survive, causing major disruptions in international political economy.  New industries and professions will displace older ones - there will be an increased need for the raw materials that will be required for 3D printing's additive manufacturing processes, increased demand for product engineering and product design and their corresponding skillsets, and an increased need for legal services that specialize in the escalating emphasis toward intellectual property rights.  The authors even go so far as to raise the possibility of "a collapse of the traditional labor paradigm" as well as "the emergence of new classes, like the precariat".

Third, in terms of national security, they discuss the ability for individuals to print their own guns, although this isn't really a prediction - it's already been happening.  More noteworthy is their claim that, in the long run, one could predict entirely new classes of weapons developed with 3D printing techniques.  They also raise the implications of this for the mission of the U.S. military - namely, that if there is a decline in the mass production of goods on assembly lines, this may lead to a decline in global shipping of finished goods.  They argue that "this could reduce the magnitude of the challenge of protecting sea lanes with naval forces" and that lower demand for natural resources may even "reduce the likelihood of resource conflict".

This is a good start to a scholarly discourse that is in dire need of taking place, even if a few of the authors' claims seem pretty far-fetched.  What I might suggest is an examination into the intellectual property regime that is already so vital to 3D printing.  Already, if one daydreams with entrepreneurial ideas like creating a 3D printed design marketplace, they may be surprised to discover that not only does a burgeoning industry already exist, but that much of it, like, is actually driven by Creative Commons licensing.  Many product designs are given away for free by communities engaging in non-market social production.

To what extent this dynamic is merely an extension of non-market social production forces in other venues, or to what extent it is truly transformative in terms of political economy, is definitely worth exploring further.



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