3D printing gives an unexpected boost to trade

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A study has shown that 3D printing could boost trade between countries despite fears it could have the opposite effect.

Fears have been stoked that greater adoption of technology could significantly reduce international trade due to people’s ability to produce goods locally.

But research from the University of California, San Diego and the World Bank suggests that while 3D printing can change production processes, supply chains generally remain intact.

The article looks at the production of hearing aids, a good most often produced by 3D printing.

The results reveal that the shift to 3D printing led to a doubling or near doubling of producers’ exports after five years and that the technology was the main cause of the increase in exports.

Some 35 other products were also examined, such as running shoes, airplane parts and prosthetic limbs, which are increasingly being 3D printed, and they found similar patterns.

“Technology is a boon, not a curse to commerce,” said paper co-author Caroline Freund. “A country’s exports of hearing aids have increased more than trade in other similar goods as a result of manufacturers’ adoption of 3D printing. New production technology combined with commerce means that consumers around the world with hearing loss benefit from higher quality and often cheaper hearing aids.

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

Additionally, hearing aids are lightweight products, making them relatively inexpensive to ship internationally. The same is true for the other products examined by the authors – lighter products are associated with greater trade growth.

These results are based on comparisons of the growth of 3D printed products against other similar products. The authors also considered trends and other factors 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 reshape supply chains,” said Freund, a former Global Director for Trade, Investment and Competitiveness at the World Bank.

Although the analysis of the impact of 3D printing on trade is positive, it may be short-lived. If 3D printers become more accessible to local producers or even consumers in certain sectors, production could be more localized, hampering development opportunities through trade.

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