AM Coalition: 3D Printing in the Context of US Global Competition (and US Global Competition in the Context of 3D Printing)

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Additive Manufacturing (AM) Coalition, the DC advocacy group for the U.S. AM industry, graciously invited me to participate in a panel last week at RAPID + TCT 2024, titled, “The Forum on Global Competitiveness, Unfair Trade Practices and IP Strategies for AM: How Should the US Respond?”

Now, since I flew out of O’Hare, I obviously missed the panel because of a four-hour delay. Nevertheless, I thought it still might be worthwhile to share the comments I’d prepared for the panel:

First off, I’d like to say thank you to the AM Coalition for having this discussion, and to the other panelists for being willing to join in on this important topic, especially as it’s not one that everyone would jump at the chance to participate in. AM Coalition asked me to discuss the report that AM Research,’s sibling company, just published, “The State of Chinese Additive Manufacturing”.

Image courtesy of AM Research

While I didn’t write it, I’m certainly familiar enough with the report to speak to its key points. In addition, I co-wrote the AM Research report published last year on AM for defense and the military, and recently wrote a report on AM for the semiconductor capital equipment market: two areas in which the US’s strategic competition with China is centrally relevant.

To keep things concise, without getting into hard numbers, the most important takeaways from the report for this discussion here are that China is one of, if not the, fastest-growing AM markets in the world, and this fact can largely be attributed to the Chinese government’s fiscal support of its domestic advanced manufacturing industry. The best way to think about this state-of-affairs is that China’s status as an AM hub is more or less proportional to China’s status as the global manufacturing leader.

And, significantly, while I think that, previously, the general perception has been that China was dominating the consumer 3D printing market but lagging the US and the EU in the most complex areas of the AM industry — especially large-format metal machines — this is no longer the case, if it ever was. None of this should be surprising.

Image courtesy of AM Coalition

There’s an apocryphal story about a bank robber, Willie Sutton, being asked by a reporter why he chose to rob banks, and Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” While this may not have actually happened, the point is a reasonable one, and it’s a point that’s applicable here, as well: why is AM taking off in China? Because that’s where the manufacturing is.

And China is where the manufacturing is because of deliberate policies set by the same Western governments who are now scrambling to undo the damage. The fact is, the policies the Biden administration is implementing, while in many ways unprecedented in their scope in contemporary US history, at the same time can also probably be considered the bare minimum of what should be done. In that sense, these sorts of positions should’ve been part of America’s trade policy since China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001.

The reason that such sweeping policy positions as the latest round of tariffs and export restrictions weren’t implemented until Trump and Biden likely has less to do with the shifting ideology underlying global policymaking — although that has certainly played its role — than it does with the simple fact that the issues all surround the far more practical reality that China is dominating distinctly 21st century markets. China is dominating most overwhelmingly in EVs and green energy, which are markets that have grown so much over the last decade compared to all prior history that China can to some extent be considered the founder of those markets.

China has essentially created the playing field for those markets as they now exist globally, achieving that objective through a long-term public-private strategy of comprehensive industrial policy. And since these are 21st century markets, which rely on 21st century manufacturing techniques, the smart thing for everyone else in the world to do is to update their own industrial policy stances to fit the rules of the 21st century.

That’s what the Biden administration is doing by raising tariffs on EV’s, etc., and by restricting exports of certain critical technologies, and, quite frankly, it’s a process that the Trump administration initiated with its own tariffs and restrictions on things like semiconductor capital equipment. These aren’t men that share many ideological similarities, but they’ve been on the same page on trade war issues. This emphasizes that all the policies associated with what’s generally referred to as reshoring are now essentially permanent policy positions of the US federal government that will continue to have broad, built-in bipartisan support.

Everyone is, then, already working within a business environment where federal policy is increasingly the biggest potential difference-maker when it comes to running a manufacturing company. In running a manufacturing company, or even just in working at one, you should feel entitled to have a say in the federal policymaking process. It’s understandable that you wouldn’t necessarily view that as an attractive prospect.

But everything I’ve seen over the last several years suggests the government really does need your help in making industrial policy. It is not only open to but desperate for feedback in that area, so don’t be hesitant to reach out, and don’t be hesitant to seek the AM Coalition’s guidance in reaching out. It’s not far-fetched to say that as stakeholders in AM companies, you have a very real opportunity to help lay a foundation that can make industrial policy in the US as effective as possible in the long run.

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