Yesterday I launched a component of the Green Party’s smart green innovation package, Blueprint for the Future – a digital manufacturing strategy for New Zealand. It deals with a range of technologies but the most notable, disruptive, and headline grabbing is 3D printing.
My personal interest in 3D printing started about a year ago. I had read a bit about 3D printing on blogs and websites but it wasn’t until I heard Maurice Williamson talking on the radio of the risks of 3D printing drugs and guns at parties and then going on about printing gems and gold that I thought we need a more informed public discussion and that I had to research this issue further. So I tried to meet as many experts and makers as possible to understand the technology further. I toured the maker spaces around New Zealand like the Wellington Maker Space where we launched the package today, met with academics and experts at the universities and with business cooperatives like the Titanium Industry Development association (TIDA) in Tauranga. I read as much as I could about it and was struck that The Economist would describe it as maybe having as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did. I even started an MIT Fab Lab night course at Massey University.
I learnt about the amazing developments here in New Zealand. Many wouldn’t know New Zealand has the world’s second largest 3D printing services bureau based here in Wellington, Ponoko, or that Victoria University’s student Jake Evill recently won a global design award for his 3D printed lattice cast for broken arms, or about the printed titanium products being exported from TIDA in Tauranga. What I saw was an economic opportunity for New Zealand. With our manufacturing sector in decline over the last few decades this was a chance to embrace new manufacturing technologies and innovation and grow good new jobs. New Zealand could never compete with Chinese or Indian factories for mass-producing low-cost products but we can win if we focus on high-value, advanced products and associated services.
3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, is a process of creating three-dimensional objects in a variety of materials using a computer-aided design (CAD) digital file. Other digital manufacturing technologies including laser-cutting, CNC milling and digital textiles production incorporate elements similar to 3D printing. Unlike traditional subtractive manufacturing processes 3D printing is an additive technology that builds the object ‘piece by piece’ from a digital design with an X-Y-Z axis printer. A broad range of materials can be printed ranging from plastics, metals such as titanium, clay, concrete, chocolate and even living embryonic stem cells.
3D printing has a number of advantages over traditional manufacturing techniques in areas such as customisation, rapid prototyping and printing ‘layer by layer’ allows incredible complexity and detail. It is a green technology in the sense it massively reduces input materials, waste and shipping products around the world.
3D printing has seen phenomenal growth in the last few years and the UK Government has estimated it could be a $100b market by 2020. It’s a great opportunity for New Zealand, with our real ICT and design strengths and our distance from export markets. New Zealand however doesn’t have a national additive manufacturing or digital manufacturing strategy and only small research and development support through the NZ Product Accelerator and Callaghan. The Customs Department is investigating 3D printing as a border security threat but New Zealand also needs to consider it as an economic opportunity. Some schools like Scots College have a new $15m technology block with 3D printers but our Ministry of Education don’t know how many other schools have printers for their students to familiarise themselves.
Looking around the world, it has received the support of the President Obama who featured it in his state of the union address last year and invested $200m including creating a National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, symbolically in a disused factory. China, Singapore, South Africa, the UK and Australian states are all investing significant resources and attention in 3D printing but New Zealand lacks a strategy or leadership.
New Zealand has a real opportunity to support our manufacturing sector and provide national leadership in this emerging disruptive technology. 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. The Green Party in Government will establish a Digital Manufacturing Taskforce to investigate the opportunities, identify any gaps or barriers, recommend how to encourage digital manufacturing and investigate regulatory and intellectual property implications. We will develop a national Digital Manufacturing Strategy to help grow Kiwi jobs and exports. It’s another example how the Greens are showing leadership for a smart green innovative economy – growing a richer New Zealand.