Welcome to the Future: Congress Takes on 3-D Printing

3-D printing now lets you make a high-capacity ammo magazine at home, but that’s just the start of a "third industrial revolution."

Last month, Congress entered the brave new world of 3-D printing after gun enthusiast Cody Wilson uploaded a video of himself on YouTube firing a semiautomatic rifle loaded with a homemade high-capacity magazine. The plastic magazine, manufactured on a 3-D printer, was designed to send a message: Congress, and the Obama administration, can try to ban such magazines, but technology is outpacing efforts at gun control.

Within days, Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., proposed banning 3-D printed gun magazines and firearms that could evade metal detectors as part of a renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act. “We have this new technology that allows criminals and terrorists to buy cheap 3-D printers, use them to literally manufacture firearm components that can fire bullets, and bring them onto airplanes,” he said. “I want to make it harder for the bad guys.”

This may be the first time 3-D printing is the subject of legislation, but it certainly won’t be the last. The technology, which has more than once been anointed the driver of a “third industrial revolution,” allows for the production of objects by depositing thin layers of materials. The process is called additive manufacturing, which stands in opposition to subtractive manufacturing, the traditional process in which objects are produced at factories by making small parts out of larger pieces of material, like sheets of metal. By allowing for the on-demand production of single, customized items, the technology promises to end the system of large factories and long supply chains in the markets for many goods—and to transform the global economy.

Currently, the executive branch is well ahead of Congress in anticipating the disruptive effects of 3-D printing. In August, the White House announced the formation of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Ohio with an initial investment of $30 million from five federal agencies. The Commerce Department is working to develop universal standards for many aspects of additive manufacturing processes by next year. And the Army has already deployed 3-D printers in the field in Afghanistan. But Congress will likely find itself in on the action soon enough.

One area in which there’s already a specific policy proposal taking shape is intellectual property, where the rapid pace of innovation expected in 3-D printing could require a more agile form of protection. Attorney William Cass suggests the U.S. could adopt a European-style “utility model” as an option for inventors. The utility model offers all of the rights and protections of a patent but can be obtained more quickly and cheaply, and it only undergoes exhaustive evaluation if challenged in court. The House and Senate Judiciary committees could see the utility model on their agendas in the future: Adoption of the model would require an act of Congress, according to Cass.

3-D printing also holds implications for the half-trillion dollars in annual defense appropriations. Banning Garrett, director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, predicts that rather than purchasing physical equipment and replacement parts, much military spending will be redirected to the purchase of designs. Spare parts will be printed at the point of use as the need arises. “That’s going to hugely reduce the long-term costs of weapons systems,” Garrett said.

Members of the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee are likely to be hearing a lot about the technology, too. It appears poised to bring about a global trade rebalancing, as the new economics of manufacturing reward high-skill workforces like that of the U.S. and make supplies of cheap labor in countries like China less relevant. The committees will also have to adapt U.S. policy to the changing physical footprint of the global trade in goods and parts. “Instead of pushing molecules around, we’re going be pushing bits around,” said Tom Campbell, a professor at Virginia Tech who studies additive manufacturing and coauthored a 2011 Atlantic Council paper with Garrett on the future of the technology.

Campbell would like to see Congress take a largely hands-off approach to 3-D printing itself. “The last thing I want to do is have the government clamp down on new rules or laws that impede innovation,” he said. But he does believe countries such as Germany are gaining a competitive edge in certain aspects of the technology, and he sees a need for more government funding for basic research on applications of additive manufacturing that remain in the theoretical stage. Already, scientists are working to develop methods for printing human organs and for printing meat, advances that would come with policy implications of their own.

If all that isn’t mind-bending enough, separate reports surfaced this week of efforts to develop the means to 3-D print meals in space and to print a moon base with moon dust. Congress, welcome to the future.