3D Printing and Public Policy


One Machine Does It All

As I explain in my book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World, 3D printers are the most powerful machines ever invented because they can make finished products, with all their parts, fully assembled.  Driven by a digital blueprint, they build layer upon layer of fused plastic, metal, or other materials.

3D printing can change where we make things by distributing manufacturing all over the world, fueling a manufacturing renaissance in countries with high intellectual capital and high manufacturing costs, repatriating jobs by enabling companies to make things, profitably, at the point of need without concern for economies of scale, eliminating boom and bust economies, replacing large companies with thousands or tens of thousands of small companies, putting most countries on a sustainable path of regional manufacturing, and making some jobs obsolete while creating new types of companies and jobs that never existed before.

3D Printing Policy Roadmap

In its 2013 3D printing study, IBM found that “a substantial portion of manufacturers may be caught off-guard by the rapid changes underway.”[1]  The same may be true of government policymakers, who may be distracted by the potential effects of 3D printing, or 3D printing simply may not be on their radar screens.

To be ready and undistracted, policymakers can follow this roadmap:

First, form a task force of to identify stakeholders, then invite them to study how 3D printing can help or hurt their interests, make a plan, formulate goals, and implement them.  Stakeholders should be drawn from all relevant departments and should have some level of clout.

Aided by outside consultants with expertise in the 3D printing industry, the task force should oversee initiatives in four basic areas:  analysis, education, investment, and implementation:


The task force should first Identify industries, products, and parts that can benefit from 3D printing (“Candidates”).  Some parts and products may be perfect for 3D printing if they are redesigned with 3D printing in mind.  For governments, part of this analysis involves determining if outside contractors are needed.

The task force should then perform risk analyses, to identify potential negative side-effects of 3D printing, including:

  • Product safety and liability
  • IP theft
  • Tax avoidance
  • Criminal activity
  • Insurance issues
  • Export control issues

To avoid reinventing the wheel, the task force should also study what other governments are doing to foster adoption of the technology and to educate their current and future workforces.  Many governments are developing policy responses to 3D printing and many 3D printing-related initiatives are already underway.  Other initiatives, which do not relate to 3D printing but could benefit it, are also underway.

Any policy response should accommodate the Maker movement and supporters of open innovation and technology.  Innovation requires thinking outside the box, which Makers do.  Open innovation/technology startups are largely responsible for the growth of the consumer 3D printing industry, and some of their innovations are likely to trickle up to the industrial 3D printing industry.

Legacy regulations and procedures should be examined to determine if they help or hinder the adoption of 3D printing for local manufacturing.  For example, industrial companies may view as inadequate existing IP protection for digital blueprints used for 3D printing.  Existing regulations and procedures may block surgeons from using 3D printed medical devices needed immediately on the operating table.

The task force should also identify opportunities for public/private partnerships.  A great example of such an initiative is the America Makes program in the US.  (https://americamakes.us/)


Perhaps the single most important policy response to 3D printing is sponsoring education and training in 3D printing, design, manufacturing, and software development. Traditionally, parts were designed for the limitations of manufacturing.  3D printing eliminates such limitations, which means that designers need to learn new ways to design.  Technicians need to be trained to use 3D printers.  3D printing also offers great opportunities for software developers.  Education and training should be available for all.  As America Makes’ Director, Ed Morris says, “pre-K to gray.”

Policymakers should also find ways to sponsor design and technical challenges in the 3D printing space.  These may lead to new products or new designs for old products.  Similarly, sponsoring startup competitions may lead to new businesses or business models.


Policymakers should provide public financing and incentivize private investment in startups and incubators.  Incubators and public support have already led to innovative businesses in the 3D printing space.  They should also offer tax and other incentives to Candidates and companies to use 3D printing for local manufacturing.

Buying industrial 3D printers may be cost-prohibitive for many companies.  Traditional financing models may not apply to 3D printers.  Thus, policymakers should also provide public financing and incentivize private financing arrangements.


Many opportunities are lost because government moves too slowly.  To capture the benefits of 3D printing, policymakers, therefore, should fast-track promising Candidates, education and training initiatives, public sector investments and private sector investment incentives, incubators, public/private partnerships, and changes to laws, regulations, and procedures fostering the adoption and use of 3D printing technology.

It is also important to create plans to address risks in ways that will not hinder adoption.  Plans should be subjected to what I call the Adoption Test: Does it help or hinder the adoption of the technology?  If the answer is yes, fast-track it.  If the answer is no, go back to the drawing board.

A hallmark of the Maker movement is collaboration, the sharing of ideas and skills.  Collaboration is infectious and self-perpetuating and speeds innovation.  Thus, policymakers should sponsor maker spaces.  Beyond the Maker movement, a lot of people are generating a lot of innovative ideas.  Thus, adopt and tailor the best initiatives of other policymakers.

Policymakers should also tailor existing laws and regulations to mitigate risks without hindering adoption of the technology.  This requires understanding the technology.  The more informed are the regulators, the smarter will be their regulations.

It is also important to coordinate existing resources to work toward a common goal and cross-organizational integration.  Everyone needs to be on the same page.  An important part of such coordination is communication.  Plans, goals, and implementation efforts should be communicated to all stakeholders.  This involves not only preaching to the choir but enlisting the nonbelievers as well.


According to Engineering.com, skilled 3D printing-related jobs soared 1384% from 2010 to 2014 and were up 103% percent from 2013 to 2014.  The jobs most in demand were industrial and mechanical engineers and software developers.[2]  According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US will have about 9.2 million jobs for skilled workers in 2020.  But according to the National Science Foundation, there will not be enough qualified people to fill them.[3]

Policymakers’ guiding principle should be that 3D printing is about jobs.  Adopting this technology means more jobs.  Thus, all initiatives, legislation, and regulation should be subjected to the Adoption Test.  Although 3D printing may challenge policymakers to cope with the disruption of the status quo, this technology also presents incredible opportunities for nation-building through thriving economies.

[1] John Hornick is a partner with the Finnegan IP law firm, based in Washington, DC (www.finnegan.com; john.hornick@finnegan.com).  Any opinions in this article are not those of his firm and are not legal advice.

[1]         Paul Brody and Veena Pureswaran; “The New Software-Defined Supply Chain;” IBM Institute for Business Value; July 2013,  p. 5.

[2] Sandra Helsel; “Analysis: Demand for 3D Printing Skills Soars;” Inside 3D Printing; September 12, 2014;

[3] Neil Gershenfeld; “How to Make Almost Anything;” Foreign Affairs;  Vol. 91, No. 6; Nov.-Dec. 2012; pp. 57.

John Hornick
Author: 3D Printing Will Rock the World


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