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Why the Greens’ 3D printing blueprint will fail

The Greens’ plans are a textbook example of what the late Professor Sir Paul Callaghan warned not to do.

It’s encouraging that the Greens recognise the value of technology, research and development. Their 3D printing blueprint seems well-researched and on first glance is a solid summary of the state of 3D printing. It would make for an excellent corporate white paper. Unfortunately, my praises end around there.

The most basic tension in the paper is their recognition that the rest of the world is investing heavily in it and their claim that 3D printing could be a “niche” that New Zealand could excel at. They seek inspiration from the late Professor Sir Paul Callaghan (blueprint, page 10), who argued that New Zealand’s best paths to prosperity lie in technology niches: “odd” things that we can do well and lead the world in because the markets are too small for bigger players to care about.

He warned against becoming “mired in fashionable cliché”, citing biotech as an example where we tried to follow and failed. He admired Fisher & Paykel Healthcare’s respiratory humidifiers and Rakon’s crystal-controlled oscillators, being technologies without major investment in bigger countries. He offered this criterion:

If a New Zealand technology business does something that sounds familiar, it will probably fail. If it does something that causes you to ask “what on earth is that?”, it is probably on to something.

Strange, then, to hear from the Greens:

As the late professor Paul Callaghan said, New Zealand’s path to prosperity lies in technology niches, and 3D printing offers a growing economic niche for the country. … Other countries are clearly investing significant sums into this technology and it is important New Zealand does not miss out.

This comes straight after a section explaining how the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and China were all investing in 3D printing. The Greens want us to compete with them. Yet this is exactly what Sir Paul advised against doing. By the Greens’ own evidence, 3D printing is not a niche. It is a technology with significant worldwide attention, enough for The Economist to run a leader and a briefing in 2011, which the Greens cited too. This is a key characteristic of what Sir Paul suggested we avoid.

Our competitive advantage
Perhaps I care too much about this inconsistency. There were few if any public figures of greater inspiration to me than Sir Paul, so to see his ideas misapplied bothers me at least a little. But even if the blueprint had disclaimed his vision, the Greens’ fixation with 3D printing is still troubling.

Most troublingly, while they do an excellent job of explaining the opportunities in 3D printing, they are scant on why they believe New Zealand is particularly well-placed to capitalise on it. They made reference to a few companies who use 3D printing and universities who find them useful. But they are not alone, and the Greens’ constant refrain that other countries are going there too hurts their case: it reduces our competitive advantage.

And in any case, using 3D printing is hardly a sound case for value-add. The technique is attractive because it can offer high customization at low cost, so they’re right to say it’s worth the uptake. But the whole point of the exercise is to reduce the degree of specialization required to manufacture customized parts. If it’s about using 3D printing, this more likely works against us, because 3D printing lowers barriers to entry for others to make the same things. If it’s about making 3D printers, then they omitted why they think we can excel at it.

Less obviously, the other countries they cited are investing in 3D printing alongside many other technologies. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with some government R&D funds going to 3D printing, so long as we’re hedging our bets appropriately. But the Greens’ proposal sounds as if they want most of, or at least a lot of, our eggs in that basket.

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It’s great that the Greens want to raise public awareness of 3D printing. Its potential impact is huge; it should be on our radar. We should be mindful of how it will impact our existing economy and plan ahead accordingly. The government can and should keep an eye this; it’s a useful (albeit not authoritative) initiator of information-sharing forums.

But when they want us to “embrace digital manufacturing” so wholeheartedly, it is much more concerning. It’s bad strategy to choose a market with as many competitors, or even potential competitors, as the Greens describe. It’s even worse when there’s no existing strength you can use to outshine them. The Greens’ “blueprint for the future” sounds like a great way to run into the ground. I hope they’ll reconsider.

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