3D printing of small objects unlikely to displace seaborne trade 

Report concludes that additive printing complements physical goods trade


By Carly Fields


A high-level OECD report on 3D printing technologies has concluded that it is premature to suggest that 3D printing technology will ‘replace’ trade, dispelling the hyped warning of the same over the past few years.

3D printing technologies have caught the eye of the international shipping community for their potential to disrupt global trade. The vocalised fear is that exchanging files for local printing will reduce the need for cross-ocean trade in physical goods. However, an OECD Trade Policy Paper on 3D printing and international trade: what is the evidence to date? has found that the opposite is true. It concludes that 

the adoption of 3D printing technologies, proxied by measures of imports of 3D printers, “appears to be complementary to goods trade

In real terms, report authors Andrea Andrenelli and Javier Lopez Gonzalez calculated that on average, an increase of around $14,000 in imports of 3D printers is associated with a $3.3 million increase in the value of exports of 3D printable goods. Similar dynamics are found for imports of 3D printable goods. “Overall, this implies that the wider adoption of the technology has, at present, limited implications for the ongoing debate on the renewal of the WTO Moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions as it is unlikely to result in loss of goods trade and traditional tariff revenue,” the report finds.

Positive outcomes

3D printing offers a “versatile technology offering new opportunities for firms to increase productivity and product scope across a range of specific tasks and sectors, from parts and components in the aerospace industry to architecture, healthcare and food”, according to the OECD report. Particularly attractive are the cost savings related to the production of complex designs as well as materially simple objects. Benefits also include wide scope for customisation and suitability for prototyping, in addition to strengthening supply and value chain resilience through cost and time efficient stocking of spart part inventories.

Andrenelli and Gonzalez note that there are measurement issues, however, and it is currently difficult to accurate calculate digital trade. “Comprehensive, internationally comparable, and publicly available statistics on the use or adoption of 3D printing remain unavailable, and the world of CAD design files crossing borders for 3D printing remains uncharted,” they said.

That said, the report has used proxy measures to provide insights on adoption and use of 3D printing technology. These measures suggest that the international adoption of 3D printing is growing and that trade in high-tech 3D printable goods, including aircraft parts, dental implants, hearing aids, medications, and some machine parts, and trade in open source 3D printable items that can be home-printed, has generally grown at the same pace as total trade. In fact, 3D printed trade in orthopaedic appliances, such as hearing aids and dental implants, has grown almost twice as fast as total trade since 2007.

The report found little evidence of 3D printing replacing trade; instead it said that the “multifaceted relationship” between the technology and international trade is likely to “play out over time”.

This includes through positive impacts on trade in materials necessary for 3D printing, such as polymers and metals, and in-design services.

Andrenelli and Gonzalez advise policymakers to think about 3D printing as a “productivity enhancing technology”, with the caveat that monitoring progress of adoption will need to be improved to understand the long-term consequences on trade flows.

Tariff concerns

One wrinkle of 3D printing considered by the OECD is the impact a rise in take-up of local 3D printing options will have on many developing countries, where import duties or tariffs on physical goods are an important source of government revenue. “If 3D printing puts an end to – or a severe dent in –international trade in goods, then the technology may affect their capacity to collect fiscal revenue,” said the report.

But the findings of the report dismiss that concern, flipping the 3D printing phenomenon to a positive, rather than a possible negative, for developing countries. 

The results are significant for developing countries, meaning that imports of 3D printers may play a role in helping build export competitiveness in products that can be 3D printed.

“The evidence suggests that, to date, there appears to be no trade-off between 3D printing – and the associated electronic transmissions – and regular trade in goods, meaning that there are no compelling reasons to be concerned about tariff revenue losses as a result of wider adoption of the technology,” the report concluded.

Visit www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/0de14497-en.pdf to download the full report.