The Conspicuous Absence of 3D Printing from Biden’s Latest Strategy Update on Critical Emerging Technologies

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Last week, the Biden administration released yet another policy document related to its overall economic strategy, entitled “United States Government National Standards Strategy for Critical Emerging Technology [CET]”. Essentially, the document, released by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is a declaration of the US government’s renewed commitment to ensuring that US private capital has as much of a say as possible in dictating the future of global industrial standards.

Notably, the document does not contain the terms “3D printing” or “additive manufacturing (AM)”. However, rather than a sign that the Biden administration has abruptly, inexplicably abandoned the historically unprecedented support it has thus far given to the AM sector, I think the document proves exactly the opposite point. As I will argue, one could reasonably view the policy statement in these terms: 3D printing is no longer quite an “emerging” technology because it has, in fact, already emerged.

Let’s go back to a little over a year ago, when the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) released an update to a Trump administration document, “National Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technologies”. The Biden administration’s update included an annex listing 20 broad categories deemed to qualify as elements of the critical emerging technology sphere.

As I noted in my post about that document, “[Readers of the whole list] who have a particular interest in the technologies encompassed by the terms AM or 3D printing will notice, not only that AM is mentioned by name, but, even more significantly, that AM overlaps with virtually every other major category that is listed. Indeed, under the aforementioned “Advanced Manufacturing” heading, alone, aside from AM, all three of the other bullet points [‘Clean, sustainable manufacturing’, ‘Smart manufacturing’, and ‘Nanomanufacturing’] can be considered either iterations of AM, or descriptors which would include AM as one example fitting the description.”

There is no reason to think that the Biden administration has changed its mind about how central AM is to the future of all the other advanced manufacturing technologies. Contrarily, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that the administration has only increased, and will continue to increase, its financial, administrative, and ideological support for the AM sector.

For the 3D printing industry, the relevance of the latest policy document lies in something I wrote a couple of weeks ago, regarding Nikon’s announcement that it is establishing a new subsidiary, Nikon Advanced Manufacturing Inc., in the US. I wrote, “…it will soon become clear to all of the other sectors comprising advanced manufacturing that 3D printing will be the technology playing the central role in the whole new schema for industrialization.”

The same takeaway can be gleaned from the national standards strategy on CET, if one acknowledges the disparity between the progress that has already happened on standardization in the AM sector, compared to standardization progress in other sectors, such as AI and quantum computing. Simply put, AM may be far behind conventional manufacturing when it comes to standards, but it is in a world ahead if you compare it to all the other Industry 4.0 technologies.

The point here isn’t to defend AM or to disparage other burgeoning industries. Instead, it is to suggest that all of the recommendations being made concerning standardization in the national standards strategy are already comparatively well-established (albeit ongoing) developments in the AM sector.

NIST’s Advanced Measurement Laboratory in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

For instance, consider this paragraph from the national standards strategy: “The lifeblood of [standards development organizations, or SDOs] is good-faith engagement on the technical merits. As such, this strategy focuses on increasing U.S. private and public sector engagement with SDOs that will sustain and strengthen this foundational ethos. The U.S. Government and its partners in the public and private sectors will launch new efforts to do this. In so doing, we will foster U.S. and likeminded nations’ competitiveness in emerging markets and work to vigorously promote our shared values and market economies based on impartial and effective standards.”

That this is already happening in the AM sector, and has been for years, is confirmed if only by the fact that ASTM International, one of the most important SDOs in the US and across the globe, purchased Wohlers Associates, the leading AM consultancy, at the end of 2021. Relatedly, ASTM has already published over 30 standards for the AM sector, with the first published in 2013, and well over half the standards published since 2020.

Moreover, the Biden administration’s National Strategy on Advanced Manufacturing (NSAM), which mentions AM over 20 times, refers to the AM Forward initiative as one of the greatest success stories of the administration’s advanced manufacturing strategy. Thus, the latest policy statement is likely not premised on the idea that AM is no longer important. Oppositely, it is much more likely that it is premised on the idea that AM has established the successful model of standardization for all of the other emerging technologies.

The main practical implication of this is the reinforcement of the idea that, going forward, optimization with all the other most advanced digital technologies will be more and more important to the success of the AM sector. That obviously presents a new set of challenges, but as is always the case in such circumstances, it presents an equal amount of new opportunities.

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