3D Printing: Challenges and Opportunities for International Relations

Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Sam Cervantes

Chief Executive Officer, Solidoodle

Thomas Campbell

Associate Director for Outreach and Research Associate Professor, Virginia Tech

Rob Reid

Author and Technology Entrepreneur

J. David Kirkpatrick

Chief Executive Officer, Techonomy

Experts discuss the challenges and opportunities of 3D printing.

The Malcolm and Carolyn Wiener Annual Lecture on Science and Technology addresses issues at the intersection of science, technology, and foreign policy.

KIRKPATRICK: Welcome, everybody. I'm David Kirkpatrick, and I have a company called Techonomy Media, and I'm a technology journalist, put on conferences and worked at Fortune for many years. I'm going to start with a few announcements.

So welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations Malcolm H. and Carolyn Wiener Annual Lecture on Science and Technology. And I'm told it's the second such annual lecture. Last year, it was on climate change, the first time. This one focuses on "3-D Printing: Challenges and Opportunities for International Relations," with Thomas Campbell, Sam Cervantes, and Rob Reid.

Rob Reid, you'll notice, is not sitting on stage, but he is with telephonically. Rob, can you hear us?

REID: I can hear you. Can you hear me?

KIRKPATRICK: Yes, we can. OK, don't say anything else now.

A special thank you to Malcolm and Carolyn Wiener for making this lectureship possible. And this annual event was created to address issues at the intersection of science, technology and foreign policy. I'd also like to welcome the CFR members around the nation and the world participating in this meeting through a live stream.

And let me briefly introduce the panelists. To my immediate left is Tom Campbell, who's at Virginia Tech. And as you'll find out, he is one of the world's leading experts on the big picture of 3-D printing—or I actually think there's—there's a lot of different terms for it, additive manufacturing. I think of it as distributed manufacturing as one way to think of it. But he's an expert in it. And you'll find out that he's done a lot of thinking about what it means for foreign policy, as well.

Sam Cervantes is the founder and CEO of a local company here in New York, based in Brooklyn, called Solidoodle, which makes very inexpensive 3-D printers that cost $499. He, too, is very interested in foreign policy, so he's thought about some of the implications, even though he's basically building a consumer product, which is what is so interesting that there is such a thing as a consumer product for 3-D printing.

Rob Reid, who is with us by audio because he had a back—he threw his back out unexpectedly. I think it was the first time that it ever happened, and he didn't really—so he was expecting to fly here from San Francisco for this meeting, and he was unable to do so, but luckily we do have him in this virtual form, so to speak. He is a long-term technologist who I've known for many years who was the founder, CEO and chairman of Listen.com, which developed the Rhapsody music service, which he then sold to Real Networks. He's also a novelist, and his book, "Year Zero," was published in July 2012 by Random House. Previously, he'd written "Year One," which was a memoir of his life at Harvard Business School. Anyway, he—he's a very big-picture thinker, and he's actually spent time—a lot of time in Egypt. That gave him some perspective for this topic.

But I want to—I want to just sort of—I don't have huge observations to begin, except I wanted to ask, how many people in the room consider themselves to be fairly knowledgeable about 3-D printing? OK, maybe a quarter. How many people in this room know that China has made a national commitment of almost $500 million towards 10 national 3-D printing development institutes? Like four people. OK.

Well, that's something Tom will elaborate on. I didn't know that. So he'll explain how that happened. I want you to explain how that happened. It's very recent, and it's quite instructive at how quickly the landscape is shifting.

To another example of the speed of the landscape shifting is that Tom was a coauthor of a piece a year ago, in September of 2012, on the national security implications of additive manufacturing, as he calls it in that paper, and at the time, he said the low-end 3-D printers go for several thousand dollars. And now we have—only 14 months later, somebody on—13 months later, somebody on stage who's selling them for $499.

Also in that paper, Germany was listed as probably the biggest R&D center outside of the United States—in the world, in fact. Now I think very quickly that landscape is shifting.

So we're all learning about this in real-time. The technology itself, however, is not new. What's new is the incredible, I think, inexpensiveness of some of the machines and the deployment that's happening across the economy. The leading company, Stratasys, which is a recent merger of an American and an Israeli company, now headquartered in Israel, sells machines ranging from, what, around the same price point that you have at MakerBot...

CERVANTES: About $2,000.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, a little higher.

KIRKPATRICK: Two thousand is their cheapest? OK, he used to—he was one of the first employees at MakerBot, also, which is now owned by Stratasys, but Stratasys goes up to $500,000 machines that are used by General Electric to build parts for their turbines. So there are machines of all scales for both major heavy-duty industrial purposes, as well as toys.

And there are implications in all this for, I think, the future of the economy, for the nature of work, for the location of work, for U.S. competitiveness, and those are all the things that I think we'll try to talk about here today.

I want to ask Tom to just kick it off, though, with some general remarks, because he is so knowledgeable, just to sort of put this all in context and tell us how we ought to be thinking about this set of technologies here at the Council on Foreign Relations.

CAMPBELL: Sure. Well, thanks, David. And, first, let me thank the organizers of the Council on Foreign Relations for inviting me here to sit on this panel. It's truly an honor.

And I've given many, many presentations about 3-D printing or, as we technologists call it more formally, additive manufacturing, but it's always fascinating to see—and I'm glad you asked, David, how many people in the audience know of it or feel that they have some level of substantial knowledge.

And so I'm going to give a very high-level perspective first. So what is 3-D printing? So a lot of people when I go to cocktail parties or whatnot, they say, well, what is this 3-D printing stuff, Tom? You can only print in two dimensions.

I say, well, actually, imagine you have, say, your wine glass, and you have the wine glass—you want to make it, but instead of casting it in a glass mold or blowing it into certain ways, you physically print the bottom layer—so the base of the glass—and then you lower what's called a Z stage or a directional stage, and then print another level, and then eventually print the stem and then the full-blown flute. And then you get a physical object, so a three-dimensional object, ergo, 3-D printing.

And so that is kind of mind-blowing to many people, because they say, oh, that's not possible. You can't do that. I say, well, actually, we scientists and engineers, we've been doing it for over 30 years, and it's there. But what has happened in the community most recently—and my colleagues in various industry and other engineering technical capacities, we've realized it's reached a tipping point in the media, in particular in 2012.

My very good colleague and friend, Terry Wohlers, who runs the Wohlers Associates, showed a beautiful graph just recently in which he showed the number of articles and blogs and hits which he tracks routinely, going up a graph, and then reach an inflection point right around 2012, which curiously was around the time we published the 2011 article with the Atlantic Council. But that may or may not be implicated in that context. But the interesting thing is more and more people are excited about it.

And so materials that are available for 3-D printing are vast. And so most people hear about the plastics. That's what MakerBot does primarily.

KIRKPATRICK: And Solidoodle.

CAMPBELL: And Solidoodle. And others in the community. However, there are many, many other types of things which are either in research mode or physically active in industry, including metals, including titanium powder, which is very crucial for the aerospace industry, ceramics, glasses, foodstuffs, even biological cells. And so these things are all being researched aggressively right now.

So within the context of the technology and the economy, the market worldwide for additive manufacturing and 3-D printing last year was about $2.2 billion. I know General Electric, for instance—and perhaps Sam can elaborate on this—has a program in which they're investing $1 billion just within their own company on 3-D printing, because they recognize that it's such a transitional—or translational game-changer for their community.

So some examples of what 3-D printing can do. So the U.S. Navy—I have a brother-in-law who's a former commander or captain in the U.S. Navy. He used to drive submarines for a living. Very cool job. And he would tell me frequently, well, when they get on a submarine, they have to go four, six months in duration. Everything that they have they need has to be on that sub. So that means that they can just stuff it full of spare parts and food and other things.

Well, the Navy is looking in particular at 3-D printing as a game-changer for submarines and long-distance aircraft carriers, so instead of having all that stuff there, they'd just have powders and raw materials and so forth, and they can go and then produce the part on the fly. And so that's an example.

Another really cool example—my background and—I teach these in aerospace engineering sciences. And I'm working right now with a group called Made in Space out in California, and they are working to put a 3-D printer actually on the International Space Station. They've been approved to do that. So why would the ISS or the International Space Station be interested in that? Same reasoning.

So on the International Space Station, you may not know that—or if anybody's seen the movie "Gravity," you can see all the stuff flying around in the space station and so forth, but at least one-third of the stuff on that station is spare parts. Because when you're up in space, again, you can't just go and call FedEx and have it shipped to you directly. You need to have it there right now, by god. And so it's important. And so they're very interested in doing this, 3-D printing the raw materials so you can make a bracket, widgets, whatever you want on the station itself.

Also, some colleagues of mine in Organovo and Modern Meadow—so these are two companies that just got started a few years ago. Organovo is working on physically printing living organs...

KIRKPATRICK: Human organs.

CAMPBELL: Human organs, and they are on track to do this. So imagine, when we all hit our 80s, 90s, 100s, and our bodies eventually start to degrade—it will happen to all of us, unfortunately—and we may need new organs—we could take our own cells, put them into the 3-D printer, and then have it print a new organ for you. That would be fantastic. I'd like to live forever. I'm not sure we can, but that's one means toward longevity increasing.

And meat and leather is what Modern Meadow is working on. So the...

KIRKPATRICK: Using some of the same patents.

CAMPBELL: Same patents—well, same patents and so forth, right, David. So instead of having the cows and the pigs and whatever other meat industry produces the meat from, why not have the living tissue be printed? And so I joked when I gave a keynote just recently. Half the audience is either disgusted, and the other half says, "Cool." I always love that reaction, because in—when you go to your steakhouse in, say, 20 years, you may have a steak that you received that was 3-D printed in the kitchen. You know, you may never know, because the technology is getting to the point where that even the taste is being worked on right now. And leather, also, to save the animals and all the waste and methane gas production and whatnot.

So I mentioned China. So in the foreign policy world, it was fascinating—when Obama gave his 2012 State of the Union, it's always interesting to parse what individual words he states. And honesty, this is one of the few times where I watched the State of the Union where I literally almost fell out of my chair, because he mentioned three-dimensional printing in that context.

A few months prior, the NAMII Pilot Institute, a National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which is now the Make America Institute, got funded by the federal government for the tune of about $30 million U.S. dollars and was matching funding from that for—from industry, about $30 million to $60 million. I think they're up to $100 million. Don't quote me on that exactly.

But the logic is that Obama and all the staffers recognize that 3-D printing could be a game-changer for many facets of the government, not just the Department of Defense, but EPA, DOE, many other areas, and so the very first initiative that they decided to fund was for 3-D printing.


So he said, citing Youngstown, Ohio, where the funding was going, that there's a small group in Youngstown, Ohio, which will—is working on this thing called 3-D printing, which literally has the potential to make almost anything. When he said that, the blogosphere, in my world, just lit up like fireworks. It was craziness.

But what even more important—all the foreign governments around the world heard that, and China heard that, and they said, oh, wow, well, we know about this 3-D printing thing, and maybe we should invest. And true enough, a few months later, they announced that they were investing—and I'll quote the exact dollar value—$242 million in just over a three-year span.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, that's less than you said. You said almost $500 million (inaudible) sorry.


KIRKPATRICK: That's still a lot of money.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, so that may have been a misquote. I apologize for that, David. But it's a lot of money.

KIRKPATRICK: It's an amazing fact...


CAMPBELL: The—also, Singapore, a tiny nation-state, has announced a major program, investing $403 million in advanced manufacturing, of which 3-D printing is a major part. I myself gave some advice to Singapore Economic Development Leadership Board, and they took that, and they're doing what they're doing with it.

But the key thing is, it woke up the giants in Asia, big time, when Obama made those statements. And I think overall that's a good thing, because we need collaborators. We cannot do everything in the United States on our own. It's very expensive to do parts of this research. And so I think it's overall good that we have some competition and collaboration potential. So hopefully that gives you a good insight from the flavor of the field.

KIRKPATRICK: How would you compare right now the quantity of government support for this technology in China and the United States?

CAMPBELL: Well, certainly China is investing the largest. And the 10 institutes is a correct number, whether it's parts of $200-odd million or $500-odd million. They are doing this in a monstrous way. The U.S. government still is funding the Make America group now in a very large way, but it's not orders of magnitude different, like in China.

I think the U.S. is working more with the corporations and relying on the corporations to develop the technology, primarily because for them, it's a value add. If they see some funding and investment and then they get corporations excited, whether it be GE, Solidoodle, MakerBot, whomever, then they save the money on it.

China's obviously a unique form of government, so if they want to do something, they're going to do it and step—jump both feet in, and that's what they've done.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, good. There's a lot to come back to. You've said a lot of really interesting things. One thing that you said that I just want to get to, in case we don't get to it later, because—what was that percentage of a contemporary 747 figure?

CAMPBELL: So depending upon how you count the parts—so there are roughly—and I'm going to quote this—I read this after I told you this—6,000-odd parts, that those may be different—many different types of parts on a given 747. There are somewhere around 300-odd parts per use, but in the—in the quote...

KIRKPATRICK: Using this technology?

CAMPBELL: Using this technology.


CAMPBELL: Directly today. So if you get on a 747 or, really, any aircraft of a commercial type, imagine that there are at least X hundred or X thousand parts being made for that plane that you're sitting on. And the exciting thing is, it's not just the raw number right now, but Boeing itself has said they want to make up to 50 percent of the parts via 3-D printing.

The beautiful thing for them is, it saves weight, it saves cost, and they can make them incredibly complex that they could not be able to do before. So in the aerospace engineering community, if you have even a simple bracket, and you can shave off weight, but yet make that bracket just as strong and in the right stress components, and everything else, as you would have if you made it via traditional lathe machining or removal of material. That's fantastic, because every single pound of weight that you save, whether that's offset by all the luggage people are stuffing in the overheads or not, but in a routine plane, every pound you save can literally be thousands of dollars over the single year of a plane because of the jet fuel costs and then wear and tear on the plane in general.

So they're being highly aggressive. And EADS and Airbus and all these folks are being very aggressive in the aerospace community for 3-D printing right now.


So, Sam, talk a little bit about what you're doing with Solidoodle and, you know, where you see the directional indicators. And I want to maybe ask you a question or two after you do that.

CERVANTES: Sure. Well, first of all, thank you for moderating the panel. And thank you to the CFR for inviting me here. I'm honored. I'm honored.

So my name is Sam Cervantes. I'm the founder and CEO of Solidoodle. We've been operating for about two years now, and we make 3-D printers at the consumer level, 3-D printers starting at just $499 for a fully assembled 3-D printer. Our printers are about this big. They come fully assembled, ready to go right out of the box, and they can produce parts in plastic up to about six inches to eight inches big, pretty much anything you can imagine in three dimensions, as long as it fits within this little eight-inch cube. Our products sell for $499 to $899.

So why is 3-D printing on the consumer level interesting within the scope of foreign policy? I believe—and we're working really hard to make this happen—that within the next 5 to 10 years, 3-D printing will become ubiquitous throughout the world at the consumer level. You know, our goal is to put a 3-D printer in every home in the world. And I think we can make that happen.

Already we've seen staggering growth in just the past two years. We've sold—shipped about 7,000 printers to customers all around the world. That's about $6 million worth of products. And we shipped to 60 different countries, the majority to the United States, but I want to say about 40 percent of our sales come from countries outside of the U.S., mostly the European Union, but 60 countries, nearly any country that you can imagine. So 3-D printing already we're seeing a huge adoption. A lot of people are interested.

I believe this is an overwhelmingly positive force in society. 3-D printing is going to allow us to live smarter, happier, more sustainable, and more productive lives. So on the whole, this new form of technology is a net benefit for society.

But on the whole, I think 3-D printing is just one small sub-segment of the coming robotics revolution, OK, which is going to be the integration of the past century of innovation. In the early—late 1800s, early 1900s, we had the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution brought about mass production. We can make a lot of things very cheaply. 1980s, we had the digital age, cheap microprocessing power, the PC. 1990s and early 2000s, we had the Internet revolution, worldwide sharing of information. Each age built on the previous century of innovation.

The robotics revolution and the automation revolution that's coming is going to be the integration of those three previous areas, the entire past century of innovation, and already we're seeing it happening. You know, you can buy a robot—I think it's called a Baxter—and it looks like—about the same size of a human, and you teach it by grabbing its arms and teaching it how to assemble things.

It's already happening. It's already here. So the robotics revolution is here to say, and 3-D printing is just one small sub-segment of that. Having said that, it's a big segment, a multi-billion-dollar industry. At the consumer level, I believe the 3-D printing industry, it's still fairly small. While it's a big—corporate level, 3-D printing is a billion-dollar industry, at the consumer level, it's only—I want to say—$50 million to $100 million industry. So it's still fairly small, but at the consumer level, it's got—it's got big potential. And we know that.

What is 3-D printing all about? It's about decentralizing the means of production. Instead of having one massive factory where we produce everything, and produce a million parts of the same type and ship to people all around the world, imagine each home has a mini-factory, everybody has a mini-factory in their own home, and they can create whatever they want. They're no longer constrained by what a few big manufacturers think is what's best for them. They can produce whatever they think. We're going to see new forms of creativity and new forms of innovation sprout up, and we're already seeing it.

We're going to see a blurring between the line of a producer and a consumer, which I think is really interesting, and the cat is out of the bag. 3-D printing is here to say. A Pandora's box has been opened. So as Thomas mentioned, China and Singapore are already doing it. What are we going to do as the U.S. from a policy standpoint to remain competitive as a nation? I think it's important that we move forward in a pro—from a policy standpoint, in a pro-business and a pro-innovation manner to promote the use of 3-D printing to allow us to live happier and more sustainable, productive lives.

Who's buying 3-D printers right now? We have four distinct customer segments all in the consumer realm. Families are a big customer segment for us. A lot of times, a father will buy a 3-D printer. It's quite affordable, $500. He'll use it to teach his children about technology, print out toys for the children. It's—print out little gadgets for around the house.

Another customer segment is schools. Schools love our printers. We get a number of orders per week. Schools today even more and more are always looking for curriculum which fulfills STEM initiatives, science, technology, engineering and math, so a 3-D printer kills two birds with one stone. The 3-D printer is as new form of technology in and of itself, but it's also great for teaching students about design and the new forms of engineering, and it can be used by students as early as—you know, we've had students in the fourth or fifth grade use them on their own. It's really inspiring to see.

The next customer segment are designers, people who design professionally for a living. When I was an aerospace engineer at GE, eight years ago, I used a 3-D printer. It was a really big one, really expensive one. I wished I had a small desktop unit. And actually, in terms of designers, we have engineers at GE right now using our 3-D printers on their desktop to prototype little parts. It's—certainly they're not functional in a jet engine, but they're great for demonstration purposes and help to visualize new ideas and designs.

Our fourth customer segment is hobbyists. And that's—I want to say that's about 20 percent of our market. The hobbyists have to have the new technology, always have to have the new, latest thing, early adopters.

So those are the kind of people that are using it now. I'm really excited about what the future holds. And our goal is to make 3-D printing ubiquitous and widely available for the average consumer.

KIRKPATRICK: Great. Well, thanks. So, Rob, you're something of a professional futurist and a science fiction author, to boot. From your point of view, what do you think people least understand about what's happening and will happen? And take, you know, the long-term view and give the audience a flavor of what—how to think about, you know, this technology in 10 years.

REID: Yeah, I'm happy to do that. So one of the things that is—you know, that often comes up when people talk about 3-D printing, particularly consumer 3-D printing, people can be very dismissive, because the things that are typically coming out of a consumer class 3-D printer right now are—you know, 3-D printers at the consumer level are, relatively speaking, relatively unempowering—I'm sorry, relatively underpowered and are producing things that, you know, rarely blow very many minds when people see them, you know, kind of smaller trinkets and that kind of thing. And I think a lot of people are very, very dismissive about the potential when they see that.


Similarly, people were very dismissive about the potential for consumer computing, back in the early 1970s, when Intel shipped the first integrated circuits. And, you know, if you kind of go out 25 years, from the first microprocessor, which Intel shipped in 1971, that could basically power a four-function calculator, 25 years out of that, out from that period, you were in the first Internet bubble.

And when you think about how ubiquitous and powerful consumer-grade computing was or desktop computing in the business place in the late '90s, that's an enormous journey that was taken. And even the most optimistic futurist never would have been able to really predict that violent change.

Now, there's obviously something special going on when we talk about microprocessors, which is Moore's law. And famously, the microprocessor doubles in its price performance roughly every 18 months, which is not something that we can say about the manipulation of matter necessarily. So I don't want to get too carried away and say that 3-D printing on the consumer level is going to go through a similar price performance improvement.

But nonetheless, any nascent technology that is for the very first time coming out to the consumer is going to go through very, very rapid advancement. I mean, look at, you know, things that have nothing to do with microprocessors, like flight. The first jets flew toward the end of World War II, 25 years later, we had Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. The first color TVs shipped in 1954, and 90 percent of Americans at that point had fewer than five channels available to them. Twenty-five years later, we famously had all Americans accessing 57 channels with nothing on.

So I think that we are going to have super-empowered consumers. And when I think about the CFR dimension of this, I think about the relationship between people and their state. And I'm really intrigued by the potential that 3-D printing has for subversion, subversion in any society, but particularly in less free societies.

So much as YouTube lets people see things that their governments don't want them to see, and much as Facebook and Twitter and blogging platforms lets people say things that their governments do not want them to say, 3-D printing will allow people to make things that their governments don't want them to have. And I think people's imaginations are at times limited by the relatively small and unsensational things that are coming out of Solidoodle machines at this moment. But it's really amazing to think of what a Solidoodle machine will make in 25 years.

And, you know, it's very fair to say that a highly motivated individual with time on his or her hands, somewhat higher than average budget than a normal consumer, and somewhat better than average technical and crafting skills, will among many other things be able to make a lethal weapon of almost any shape out of an incredibly wide range of materials within 15 to 25 years. Not everybody. It's not like everybody's going to be hitting print on their printer and getting a pistol out. But, you know, things like weapons control, which is—you know, there's very, very little gun control in our country, so I don't think the United States is particularly going to change much because of this, but in countries that very, very sharply limit the proliferation of weapons, I think there is going to be some significant changes there.

I went to school in Tahrir Square back in the '90s. I wasn't there for the Arab Spring, but, again, thinking not two years, not five years, but 10, 15, 20 years from now—and not strictly weapons. That's a sensationalistic example—but any one of a real panoply of things that people will be able to make very, very quickly and easily, without permission of normal distribution channels or governments, are going to proliferate throughout the world, and I think that's a very, very intriguing thing from the standpoint of the relationship between individuals and states.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. And I think—you know, the analogy with the PC, which you're pretty much making, is a pretty interesting one, that, you know, the PC democratized communications and information access. And it could be said that companies like Solidoodle are inaugurating an era where the democratization of manufacturing is happening in a new way.

I would like to just touch briefly on the U.S. competitive issues, because—before we—we do need—I want to hear from the audience and questions and comments, but, you know, is there—Tom, do you think there is any fundamental sense in which any country can remain ahead in this technology? Or is it basically a cat's out of the bag, just use it intelligently, and try to—try to not dismiss it?

CAMPBELL: Well, I mentioned China and Singapore, and Germany also is actually the leader in metals additive manufacturing, 3-D printing systems. There are a couple companies, ExOne, 3-D printing systems, Stratasys, which, oh, by the way, got bought out by Israeli company Objet.

However, as I tell my colleagues in the Department of Defense when they ask me these questions, it's my perception on any disruptive technology that there's always something else that is—that can come along, so whether it be Solidoodle's enormous capabilities in printing plastics in different ways, shape or form, or the reason I got in, actually, 3-D printing is because I wanted to stuff nanomaterials into them. And so I was a nanotechnologist for many years before I got involved in 3-D printing about five years ago.

And so in the crest of the wave of 3-D printing or robotics and so forth, I think it's important that the U.S. stay a little bit on the tip of that crest ahead. And there are ways to do that. However, the other countries are beating the back door quite very strongly, Germany in particular, China, various other parts of Asia, Japan. They are very much getting engaged and perhaps, in some instances, throwing more money at it, which—money does not necessarily equate to great research. But it can start up large institutes, and there can be ideas borrowed directly and elaborated upon.

So I think it is very, very difficult to become and remain the leader in the way the technology is right now, because the commercials or the plastics printing market out there—I mean, I know for a fact China is starting to copy some—many of the systems from MakerBot and other places, just outright copying them, selling them within China and elsewhere.

So that is unavoidable. But what we can do is stay ahead of the curve, so look at other types of things, like embedding electronics, printing of organs, printing with nanomaterials, new and different types of capabilities that perhaps are not on the radar of other countries, but we can be the lead in, if we so choose to do so.

KIRKPATRICK: OK, that's helpful. Sam, of course, you—this is not what I'm going to ask you, but you did say that you're manufacturing a lot of your parts in China now, so I guess we could maybe speculate that some people are knowing what you're doing there.

But you—I know you've thought a little bit about the jobs piece and the economic implications, Sam. So just quickly—you know, do you see this as having a fundamental role in potentially transforming the way the economy works or the way that people think about their work, their jobs?

CERVANTES: Oh, absolutely. I think it's a very interesting question. I believe 3-D printing and automation in general has the potential to fundamentally change economies and a number of different things, and change work, absolutely.

You know, if you think about, you know, what it takes to make—you know, for example, this—I don't have it on me—an iPhone case, an iPhone case, think about the lengthy process to manufacture an iPhone case. The raw material is a plastic. Petroleum is the raw material for plastic, taken from potentially the Middle East, potentially a conflict region. The raw material, the petroleum is processed and refined into plastic, shipped to China, for example, where it's made into the iPhone case, shipped to a distribution center in the U.S., and then shipped to a retail store, where it's picked up by a customer. That iPhone case has traveled all the way around the world.

Now we can take that same iPhone case and we could print it in a renewable plastic called PLA. It's a corn-based plastic. We can grow the corn locally. Lots of corn in the U.S. Lots of corn in Ohio, my home state. We can grow the raw material locally and we could print it in your living room. You've just shortened the supply chain from the Middle East to China to the U.S., all the way around the world, potentially traversing conflict regions. You've shortened the supply chain from your backyard to your living room.

And, by the way, you don't—you're not stuck with the five iPhone cases that you see on the mall. You can download thousands of iPhone cases online, get exactly what you want, or you can create your own. So imagine a world where everyone has a mini-factory in their own home and the means of production are highly decentralized, widely available, and very affordable.

So I see a lot of potential for—in—in particular developing countries to adopt this technology and leapfrog legacy technologies. For example, we saw the same thing—an analogy in the cellphone industry. Cellphones took off much more quickly in other countries because they weren't beholden to the existing stakeholders who had landlines and highly invested in infrastructure. So in many countries even today, it's—you'll get better cellphone reception in a third-world country than you would in some parts of developed United States.

So I think, in particular, emerging economies can leapfrog—have the potential to leapfrog over legacy manufacturing methods and really—really, jump-start their economies. What happens when an economy becomes strong? They gain greater influence in the region and also throughout the world.

So, you know, I think that that's really interesting, and there are a lot of really interesting questions, which I could go into later. You know, what happens when countries become self-sufficient from a manufacturing standpoint? And, you know, so I—what happens when we have a mini-factory in every home? So I think there are huge questions there and very interesting.

KIRKPATRICK: OK, yeah, I mean, I want to get to the audience, but it's interesting, if you think about your example of the iPhone case, the implications of that on environmental implications and the reduced use of energy. They're quite substantial.

And I think a lot of people look at 3-D printing and don't contextualize it quite large—a big enough picture. And I think Tom's point about Organovo and 3-D printing human organs or Modern Meadow 3-D printing meats, I mean, I know the people in Modern Meadow, and they very firmly believe that in the not-distant future it will be possible to mass-manufacture meat without killing any animals. That has enormous environmental, ethical, and behavioral, and nutritional implications, particularly in a world where everybody wants meat and it's a huge problem that—billions coming into the world economy want to live the way we do.

So, anyway, I don't want to forget Rob in the audio ether here. But I think we should hear from you all, questions and comments. So I saw your hand—the person—the only person in the room who knew about the Chinese institutes will ask the first question, and then we'll come over here.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Laurie Garrett, and I wrote this Foreign Affairs piece in which we're talking about 3-D printing of life forms, viruses, bacteria, using nucleotides instead of printing ink, if you will. And, Tom, my brother, Banning Garrett, coauthored the piece you referred to, as having made the pop and surge in 2012 in press interest.

CAMPBELL: Perhaps a little influence.

QUESTION: A little bit at Atlantic Council. I wanted to ask you if you could go a little deeper on the—the potential impact on global labor forces, and in particular, thinking about the fact that we have a world economy that's heavily resting right now on having giant pools of cheap labor, mostly in Asia, and huge transport costs to get the goods made by the cheap labor over here.


QUESTION: How could 3-D printing change that? What would it look like? What's your imagination for 10, 20 years from now?

CAMPBELL: So, Sam and I were talking about this in the green room, actually, right before, so maybe he'd like to comment, as well. But my perception on any technology, when—particularly if it's a disruptive technology like 3-D printing, as we have already espoused a little bit, they'll both kill and create jobs.

So from the destruction of jobs perspective, so as I clarified in one of the many articles I've written, imagine if instead of going to a shoe store where you have to go try on your shoes and get the right fit and style, and then you're happy with it and everything, you just are able to choose the design directly from the website—and, oh, by the way, Nike has the capability to do this right now on their website—tell them, print it out, and then just go pick it up.

So what would happen to all the shoe salesmen, the manufacturers who ship those shoes, the China shipping creates that come over and whatnot, those will be potentially destroyed at some level. However, it will create jobs in the context that the designers who are working on that software or the different 3-D printing systems and raw materials and so forth, those will have to be amplified in order to compensate for that job destruction.

KIRKPATRICK: That doesn't sound like a one-to-one trade, however.

CAMPBELL: It all depends how it goes. I mean, it's really, really hard to forecast how technologies go and disrupt the economy. And I'm not an economist, and so I'm not going to try and comment upon that. However, what we've seen with the Internet, with the cellphones, with many other technologies now, it has done both job destruction and job creation. For better or for worse, and whether it's a one-to-one ratio or not, it remains to be seen.

I think as Sam also will clarify, already the broad scope of 3-D printing is so massive that perhaps we will get to that one-to-one ratio. It may require a different skill set of person to do it, though.

So I'll stop there. And maybe, Sam, you'd like to comment a little bit, too, on that point.

CERVANTES: Yeah, I think it's a very interesting question. How will global labor markets be affected by the automation and the robotics—coming robotics revolution? I think, you know, I—you know, I'm in agreement with Tom. It's a net benefit. Technology is a net benefit for society and a net job creator.

You know, if—and I agree with, you know, a lot of what was just said in terms of, you know, creating jobs. I was surprised—I—the thing that surprises me is why it hasn't happened sooner. It's going to happen. It's how we deal with it.

When I was in China a number of years ago, I was surprised at how little automation there was. And I asked around, why don't we see more automation? Why don't we see more robots? Why do we see so much manual labor? And the answer was, labor's so cheap. Labor is plentiful. But what we're seeing in China, we're seeing upward pressure on wages. We're seeing, you know, potentially inflationary pressures and a strengthening of the yuan against the dollar. All those lead to an upward wage pressure in China. And it's almost to the point where we see automation as becoming a preferred alternative to labor in a lot of ways.

So to—for (inaudible) competitive, I think education and job re-training are going to become even more important. And, you know, education on the whole is going to be a lot more important.

KIRKPATRICK: Rob, you got a quick comment? We got a lot of hands up, but I just don't want to forget about you out there.

REID: Yeah, I think that 3-D printing on the manufacturing level is going to combine with a couple other really interesting trends right now, particularly, the cost of a BTU—because of the natural gas boom—has come down so much in the United States over the last, you know—really, since 2008, almost 75 percent. Meanwhile, 3-D printing is really, really good at a lot of things, but high on the list are things that are complex and things that are customized. Customized is obvious. You can—you're making one thing, so customization is a very natural fit with 3-D printing.

Complexity is interesting, because in 3-D printing, complexity is essentially free. Instead of, you know, having—going through many, many, many steps to make a highly complex object, you're going through a single step of printing. So I think that those things that are complex and customized, 3-D printing itself and also things like the price advantage that we're starting to get in energy and other things is really going to move manufacturing particularly for complex and customized things away from distant places and much closer to where the customers with the budgets are.

So I think we are going to see a significant shift of manufacturing to the home. And the fact that probably most of us will have a 3-D printer—I'm sorry, to the United States—and the act that most of us probably will have a 3-D printer at home to me doesn't mean that we're going to do all of our manufacturing in the home. Most of us now have a video camera on our iPhone, but we still prefer to have CBS or Disney or somebody else make most of—not all, but most of our video entertainment.

So I think there will still be professional manufacturing environments. I think that they will be much more strongly advantaged near the customers. And so I think we will see a lot more manufacturing here.

KIRKPATRICK: Good. You know, I just want to say, this whole idea of a more distributed economy, where there's more entrepreneurialism, more self-sufficiency, where there's a much more localized mindset, I think is happening in a lot of different ways, and this becomes another factor that dovetails right into that. My company, Techonomy, just had a conference in Detroit recently, and this was a huge theme in a place like that, where jobs are in such short supply, that, really, people are increasingly realizing they have to create their own jobs, because there aren't going to be jobs that have traditionally been there. This allows them to do it in one of many new ways.

So I said you were next. And I don't think everyone has to comment on every question, and you can even ask a question or comment, too.

QUESTION: My question...

KIRKPATRICK: We've only got 10 more minutes. That's why I'm saying that.

QUESTION: My question was for Rob, and it's about the way in which 3-D printing is not like the analogies he drew with television and the PC and the Internet. All of those created technologies and capabilities that were not previously present, so they didn't replace anything, except maybe playing ball out in the yard or something.

This seems to me to be seriously disruptive. And I'm not one of the people who raised my hand when you asked if we know about 3-D printing. But, in fact, manufacturing gets distributed in anything like the way you suggest it is, this sounds like an economic train wreck. I mean, if—I grew up on a farm in Delaware. If growing beef goes the way of bloodletting, the economy's in trouble.

And so I'm wondering—I don't see the one-to-one job ratio. I see a lot of unemployed people. Rob, convince me I'm wrong.

REID: Well, actually, the first thing that I take issue is the notion that everything that I talk about replaced something that didn't exist before. I'll use computing. Well, I could use any one of them.

People added and calculated and processed numbers and crunched data and did accounting for centuries before computers came along. Computers basically made those operations virtually free or all but free and put us into a position where we could take what used to be a very complicated, hand-crafted type of procedure and essentially waste that procedure doing senseless things, like playing Solitaire on our cellphones.

Now, I don't know exactly how many people were employed in accounting and computing and number-crunching. The term computer actually used to refer to a job title. So a computer in the 1920s was a person who computed and who created—who melded numbers together and came out with answers. That wasn't—there wasn't obviously as much mass employment in those analytical fields when the first microprocessors were created or when the first, you know, true computer was created during World War II, but there was still, I am sure, tens of thousands of people who had jobs like that that were severely threatened or in theory would have been severely threatened by the rise of computing technology.

But now that we have so many more computing resources available to us, that number of jobs has actually been augmented by an enormous number. And so I think if we get to a point where we have a true matter compiler on like sort of a Star Trek level, where any arbitrary product of any kind to be made at the flip of a button in our homes, that would certainly devastating for manufacturing economy. But I think that...

KIRKPATRICK: But empowering for consumers, I mean...

REID: It would be kind of awesome for us, yeah. But I think that level of perfection and sophistication is probably not in our lifetimes. And I do think that the fact that we can—we will be able to make far more complex and interesting and sophisticated things far more easily will probably create far more jobs than it eliminates, maybe not—almost certainly not to the degree that we saw analytical professional jobs explode with the rise of computers, but I think you will see far, far more jobs arise, maybe not quite the same ratio as a result of this, rather than just simply vanishing.

CAMPBELL: I would just like to add on that...

KIRKPATRICK: OK, real fast. OK.

CAMPBELL: OK. You know, late 1800s, 60 percent of our labor force, 60 percent was employed in agriculture, farming, subsistence living. Fast forward today, it's less than 2 percent. If I would have told you back in the 1800s that those 60 percent were going to be put out of jobs because of this new technology, what are those people going to do in 100 years? And if I would have told you those people are going to build rocket ships to go to the moon, build computers, build iPhones, you would have said I was crazy.

Actually, that's what we see. When people are—when people's jobs are disrupted by technology, they go on to create smarter and really, really cool things. The human mind is more capable than...

KIRKPATRICK: Well, this question of the impact of technology on jobs is a highly debated one, which we're not really here to talk about, although it's fascinating. Let's keep this to 3-D printing as much as possible, though it raises all these issues.

In the very back? Real fast, and then we'll get right in front of you next.

QUESTION: I have a question on the—on how far backwards in the food chain can you go with the printing? For example, you mentioned iron and glass or autos and glass, right?


QUESTION: You need a blast oxygen furnace to combine elemental—elements, in effect, to make these materials. Can you replace an Exxon refinery with a 3-D—by the way, the problem with 3-D printing and why it's misunderstood is that, you know, A, you use 3-D, B, you use printing. You should call it, you know, bespoke (ph) manufacturing. That would be a little bit better terminology.

But I've followed this for a while, and I still don't understand, can you replace Owens Corning's glass furnace to—as a manufacturing process? Obviously, you can replace whatever is—or can you—you could—you can replace an extrusion machine, but not Dow Chemical's ethylene plant, you know what I mean? So that's—that's where my—that's where I'm a little confused.

CAMPBELL: I'll do my best to answer that. So from the glass perspective, right now, it's my understanding it's very much in the research stages. And so, no, we will not replace Corning's operation for mass glass manufacturing. The Gorilla Glass we carry on our cellphones and so forth cannot be 3-D printed.

But I always say yet. And so it's a question of the research when we get down to the atomistic level or the molecular level which was so well-clarified in the Foreign Policy piece, written by Dr. Garrett earlier. I read that. It was a fantastic piece, by the way. Everybody should read it.

But it's talking about how you can do this at a much more controlled level. So I'm working on, for instance, microstereolithography, which—it's literally thousands or hundreds of thousands smaller than a single millimeter printing at that level. So you actually need a microscope to see the things that we print.

But you're getting to the level of matter manipulation, which is almost unheard of, and a formative process that can, oh, by the way, produce products right out of the system. But it will not reproduce or replace right now Corning's capabilities, which is mass production. As was clarified earlier, making the wholesale replacing—plastic injection molding and so forth cannot be done and should not be done, because it's not economically viable.

KIRKPATRICK: By the way, you know, you just start down to the molecular level, at the same time, houses are being built using 3-D printing. There is a major project underway in the U.K., building buildings. Many people, including Autodesk, which is one of the top software makers, whose software is used in this stuff, firmly believes that we will be building buildings using this technology, as well, which—if you look at international implications, that means inexpensive housing for the developing world could be much more readily built. So there's all kinds of implications.

You, please identify yourself. A lot of hands up. Unfortunately, we are only five more minutes, then we've got to...

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Contessa Bourbon from the New York Times. I'd like to ask the implication of 3-D printing on copyright, copyright enforcement.


CERVANTES: Good question. Well, it's really interesting. I spoke at an event last week in front of the New York City Bar Association on this very issue. What are the trademark, intellectual property, copyright, all those issues around 3-D printing and the 3-D printed object?

It's kind of a blue ocean, a whole new area. And I think at this point, we need to make sure that we move forward in a way that we protect innovation going forward. There have been a number of issues, and there are a number of analogies that we've already seen, for example, the music industry. There's a lot of issues there. The music and the video industries saw a lot of destruction with the advent of YouTube and online media. And so the legal community struggled for a little while with the issue and eventually came up with DMCA, Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to protect those things.

We're seeing a few things in the 3-D printing industry. We have seen some DMCA takedowns on 3-D file-sharing sites. It's a blue ocean, and I think we need to learn lessons from history and from analogous industries and move forward in a constructive way.

But there's no doubt, it's a very interesting issue and an open-ended question. That was...

KIRKPATRICK: The very fact that there are 3-D printing software sharing sites, I think, implies that the problem is extremely real. And is that—that's a good touching base on it. Shall we go to here, Laticia (ph)?

QUESTION: Thank you. Laticia Gary at Ashna Partners (ph).

When do 3-D printed guns become on par with metal guns from user safety and the goal, if the goal is to kill the target? And conversely, when do metal-printed guns become as cheap to print as plastic printed guns are today?

CERVANTES: Well, first of all, I'll chime in on the first one, and then I'll pass the torch. 3-D printing at the consumer level today, at the $500 level, the sub-$2,000 level, can only print plastic. And plastic, from my understanding, makes a terrible weapon. So it's simply not feasible and safe and reliable at the consumer level today.

I'll let my colleague talk about...


CAMPBELL: On the gun question, so the fundamental limitation to my understanding for gun 3-D printing is to produce a hyper-smooth rifle bore out of which the bullet egresses. So if you do not have that, then that rifle or handgun can backfire on you.

And so the 3-D printed guns to date have been made out of plastic. I myself would never shoot one of those. There was a brilliant study done by the Australian police department in which they made exactly to spec the defense-distributed 3-D printed gun and tested it under controlled conditions, and it blew up on itself half of the time. You do not want to shoot one of those guns. So it is a fundamental issue. You asked...

KIRKPATRICK: But half the time it worked.

CAMPBELL: Half the time it worked, but it depends what kind of level of terrorist you are, I guess, I mean, if you're using it or not. But you asked the question of when. I can't say. I mean, certainly research will be done. There may be other forms of weapons which come—can arise, however, that could be even more fundamentally destructive than the gun.

I gave an example at National Defense University of IED production. For instance, you could make a fire hydrant that functions exactly like a fire hydrant, looks exactly like a fire hydrant, but it's got potentially nanomaterial explosives embedded in it and a trigger. And so nobody would ever know. And so that—I would worry more about that than the gun side, as an example.

CERVANTES: Technology's not available at the consumer level. That's very, very expensive—very expensive technology.

CAMPBELL: It's a very expensive thing.

CERVANTES: Not available on the consumer level, not today.

KIRKPATRICK: Angela, am I right that we have to wrap? Or do we have time?

(UNKNOWN): One last question.

KIRKPATRICK: One last question. OK. Who has their hand up the highest? OK, back there.

QUESTION: Thanks. David Sandalow at Columbia University Center for Global Energy Policy. How much energy does your home unit draw? And has there been analysis of whether widespread deployment of this technology would increase or decrease energy use?

CERVANTES: That's very fascinating. Our printers are $500—we sell three different printers. The least expensive printer can print six-inch parts. That takes about—I believe it's got a 35-watt power supply. The most expensive printer we have is $800. That takes 150-watt power supply—I'm sorry, 72-watt power supply and then—in this book, 72-watt power supply or 150-watt power supply. So you're looking at somewhere on the order of a light bulb to operate this printer that can create any plastic part you can imagine.

From a global perspective, would you rather run 100-watt light bulb to create your iPhone case, 100-watt light bulb, run it for maybe an hour to create your iPhone case, or would you rather ship that iPhone case with petroleum all the way around the world? It seems to me perhaps the former with the 3-D printer would be more energy responsible, but that's—I couldn't speak expertly to...

KIRKPATRICK: Quick thought, Tom?

CAMPBELL: I would agree. One thing I'll just to add to that, from the high-end metals and other types of printing systems, these involve lasers. They involved gas controls. They involve other types of things, which can be quite energy-intensive. But in the economy of this scale, you always have to factor in all the other things that Sam clarified, the shipping issues, the mass production issues, the labor issues, and calculate whether it becomes meaningful from an energy production system to make that part via 3-D printing or make it via mass production otherwise.

KIRKPATRICK: Is it your presumption that the net impact of 3-D printing is very positive in the reduction of energy use? Or is that not too obvious?

CAMPBELL: I would hope so, but I would hesitate to say universally that's the case.


CERVANTES: I would say, on the whole, we're going to see a lot more energy production. Our goal is to add billions of 3-D printers to the economy in the—especially—potentially in the developing world. So you add 1 billion consumers to the economy, that's a net gain, in my mind, in terms of energy requirements.


CERVANTES: So I think automation in general leads to higher energy requirements.


KIRKPATRICK: That seems to have been the case thus far. The council is very firm about ending on time. It is actually a little—two minutes over, but I want to thank you all.

And I also want to make a quick announcement that—which Laurie Garrett brought to our attention. There is a 3-D printed art exhibit that just opened this week at the Museum of Arts and Design. That's the museum on Columbus Circle, right? Yeah. I didn't know that.

So this is a hot topic. I urge you all to stay around and ask our panelists. Unfortunately, Rob might be too—a little bit harder to do that with, but thank you, Rob, virtually. Thank you to both of you, Sam and Tom. And thank you all for a really interesting session. A lot more to discuss.


Top Stories on CFR


The election date for the world’s largest democracy is set to begin April 19 and last six weeks. What would the results of a third term for Prime Minister Modi mean for India’s economy, democracy, and position in the Global South? 


The response to the temporary closure of the Port of Baltimore—from a deadly tanker collision—demonstrates the resilience of U.S. supply chains despite fears of costly disruptions.

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Violence around U.S. elections in 2024 could not only destabilize American democracy but also embolden autocrats across the world. Jacob Ware recommends that political leaders take steps to shore up civic trust and remove the opportunity for violence ahead of the 2024 election season.