→Jump to content

Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Additive manufacturing processes (»3D printing«)

Thematic area: Technology, society, innovation
Analytical approach: Innovation report
Topic initiative: Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment
Status: ongoing
Duration: 2014 till 2015

Background and central aspects of the topic

A range of devices for additive manufacturing has already been developed to market maturity or is currently developed. Relevant »3D printers« are already available for prototyping in the industrial development sphere, in semi-professional applications and even for household use. The application spectrum is extremely varied, ranging from mechanical engineering and mould-making (e.g. fittings in automotive engineering), to medical applications (e.g. bio-implants), and on to the production of consumer goods (household items, toys etc.). At present, the costs and time input of additive manufacturing processes exceed those of »conventional« processes, and for this reason they are still mainly used for extremely small series production and prototyping. Furthermore, the 3D printers available for general use are only suitable for very simple objects. Nevertheless, additive manufacturing processes are predicted to have a very high potential once, for instance, it is possible to produce functional and durable objects with a complex surface design and/or an internal structure (such as the incorporation of simple printed circuits based on polymer electronics). However, considerable research input is still required before this can be achieved.

The constant development of the technology raises a number of socio-economic and legal questions. On the one hand, products tailored to individual requirements can be produced simply and quickly with the aid of additive manufacturing processes (compared with the conventional mould-making processes), as a result of which they may be in direct competition with traditional production methods and crafts. What consequences would be expected for the manufacturing trade and how would, for example, quality controls be organised for critical replacement parts(e.g. automotive brake systems) if these were to be directly »printed« in workshops and then installed? On the other hand, the increasing spread of this technology among private users, too, could shift the production of a large number of products from traditional manufacturing companies into the home sphere. Because digital blueprints can be easily copied, manipulated and disseminated via the internet, fundamental questions relating to copyright and liability law arise. Even if the vision of digital blueprints completely replacing the finished product as retailable merchandise is a utopian dream for now, the further development of additive manufacturing processes can still be expected to result in wide-ranging and, in some cases, huge impacts on traditional production and value chains.

However, additive manufacturing processes are also under discussion because they raise security concerns and questions of proliferation. The first, essentially plastic handguns with limited functionability have already been manufactured, and they would be undetectable by metal detectors in, for instance, airports. Blue prints for handguns freely accessible on the internet had already been downloaded over 400,000 times before they were deleted by order of the US government. In the military sector, the US armed forces in particular are researching potential applications so that, for instance, spare parts can quickly be manufactured if required, independently of material replenishment systems. The German armed forces are also gaining practical and theoretical experience with additive manufacturing processes, for example in the production of large-calibre weapons or in relation to the possible impacts of the 3D technology on military operations.

Objectives and approach

The aim of the TA project is to examine the technological, social and legal aspects of the further development and widespread diffusion of additive manufacturing processes. The initial stage is to systematically present and evaluate the relevant technological and scientific developments in this field. Based on this, assessments of the prospective market penetration of these processes will enable to determine the possible changes in innovation and value chains and the associated effects on the business sectors. Legal and regulatory issues are to form another focus as further developments are likely to depend to a significant degree on the existing legal framework (protection of intellectual property, liability issues) or specifically created regulations. Finally, the safety and security aspects are to be addressed in order to anticipate the potential safety and security hazards of these new technologies and to discuss options for action and regulation in dealing with them.

The project is carried out in two steps. The first work package will consist of an extensive horizon scanning with the goal of determining the prospective range of operations and specific application fields of additive manufacturing processes and, on that basis, then identifying potential positive and negative consequences for industrial and commercial sectors (trades, retail, transport etc.). The horizon scanning results will be used to identify priorities which will be addressed in depth in a second part. One thematic priority which has already been identified relates to security issues in the context of potential uses of »printed« objects for criminal/terrorist or military purposes.