Report28 September 2017Updated 11 months ago

3D printing: a threat to global trade

3D printing could cut world trade by a quarter in little over forty years. Its extraordinary potential impact is huge.

Executive summary
  • 3D printing is still in its infancy. For now, it has very little effect on cross-border trade.
  • This will change once high-speed 3D printing makes mass production with 3D printers economically viable. The first technical steps have already been taken.
  • 3D printing will lead to less trade growth because 3D printers use far less labour, reducing the need to import intermediate and final goods from low-wage countries.
  • It is tricky to define the exact potential of 3D printing, but some experts expect a share of 50% in manufacturing over the next two decades. Tentative calculations show that, if the current growth of investment in 3D printers continues, 50% of manufactured goods will be printed in 2060 in scenario I, with this figure possibly being achieved as early as 2040 in scenario II in which investment doubles every five years.
  • This is estimated to wipe out almost one-quarter of world trade by 2060 under scenario I (or two-fifths by 2040 under scenario II).
  • Automotive, industrial machinery and consumer products are the industries that, as a result of 3D printing, will take the lead in suppressing cross-border trade These industries are top investors in 3D printers and are large players in world trade.
  • In automotive, the dominant bilateral trade flows are exports from Mexico, Japan, Germany and Canada to the US. So these flows will be most affected by 3D printing.
  • Locally printed car parts will increase jobs at US-based automotive factories.
  • In industrial machinery and consumer products, the largest bilateral export flows also have the US as their main destination. China is the main origin country.
  • The direction of flows in the most important 3D printing industries will lower US trade deficits with Mexico and Germany (automotive) and China (machines, consumer products), all large contributors to the US trade deficit.
  • Less trade means that countries with trade deficits in manufacturing will see deficits decline. This will be more pronounced for countries that import relatively many products from leading industries in 3D printing. Countries with a surplus in manufacturing trade will see their surpluses shrink, especially if they currently export many products that will be 3D printed in the near future.