The Trade, Legal, and Institutional Implications of 3D Printing in the Indo-Pacific

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The Trade, Legal, and Institutional Implications of 3D Printing in the Indo-Pacific

Will 3D printing transform the geoeconomics of the Indo-Pacific?

The Trade, Legal, and Institutional Implications of 3D Printing in the Indo-Pacific
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series by Robert Farley on 3D printing and global security. Read the first article here

The ecosystem of 3D printing will not, contra expectations, be lawless. Although the RAND study discussed in the last post does not go into detail regarding intellectual property law, many analysts have suggested that patent and trade secret owners will need to get creative in order to protect their IP. Indeed, legal analysts have already begun to probe the means by which firms and individuals can manage the proliferation of the templates and blueprints needed to conduct large-scale 3D printing. While preventing the diffusion of data will undoubtedly prove difficult, technology, entertainment, and pharmaceutical firms, along with national governments, have become very savvy about protecting easy-to-share data, and limiting the extent of its spread. It would be naïve to assume that these efforts will bear no fruit. Of course, such templates will be subject to state-sponsored cyber-espionage, both through theft and through sabotage.

World Trade Implications

Much remains up in the air, but if Additive Manufacturing (AM) has the impact that the RAND report (and other similar documents) suggests, then it could wreak very significant changes in how the global economy functions. In the future, firms and nations will derive advantage not from their ability to produce complex products, but rather from:

  1. Administrative capacity to achieve economies of scale in production
  2. Administrative capacity to take advantage of low cost logistical networks
  3. Established procedures that facilitate rapid innovation in design
  4. Legal capacity to protect the gains from innovation

To great (but uneven) extent, the economies of the Global North have already moved strongly in these directions, even before the advent of widespread AM. AM can have an important impact insofar as it makes local production possible in places that it was not possible before, but possible is not the same as competitive.

Implications for the Indo-Pacific

How could AM change the geo-economics of the Indo-Pacific? Many of the countries in the Indo-Pacific have built their economies around middle-tier industrial production; low-cost but skilled industrial labor takes advantage of capital mobility and robust logistical networks in order to produce goods that can compete with the labor forces of advanced industrial economies, while also substantially exceeding the productivity of lower-tier countries. The advent of AM will make a strategy like this very difficult to implement, as it will benefit both the most developed economies and the least developed economies. That said, since several East Asian countries have used the period since World War II to move from the least to the most developed categories, the window of vulnerability may have closed.

With respect to strategic significance, it does not seem likely that AM will severely undercut the existing global industrial logistics system, even if it changes that system in consequential ways. This means that the waterways of East Asia will continue to convey the energy, raw materials, and even finished goods that they have conveyed for the last seventy years. To the extent that piracy and the South China Sea are major issues for the global economy today, they will continue to be so in the future. The financial and trade relationships between India, Japan, China, and the United States will continue to be the core of the global international economy, with all of the geopolitical weight that these relationships carry.

In short, many things will change, and many things will remain the same. Careful management of the change will be among the most difficult and important tasks for the policymakers of the Indo-Pacific.