Despite a prevailing belief that 3D printing will reduce international trade, the practice allows economies to produce goods locally and expands trade overall, according to a UC San Diego study released Tuesday.
The paper was co-authored by Caroline Freund, economist and dean of UCSD’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, and will be published in the upcoming September Journal of International Economics.
The World Bank contributed data to the report.
It looked at the production of hearing aids — a good commonly produced by 3D printing — and found that 3D printing changed production processes but supply chains remained intact.
“The technology is a boon, not a curse to trade,” Freund said. “A country’s exports of hearing aids increased more than trade in other similar goods following the adoption of 3D printing by manufacturers there. The new production technology in combination with trade means that consumers around the world suffering hearing loss are benefiting from better and often cheaper hearing aids.”
The timely paper comes the day after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration moved to make hearing aids cheaper and easier to buy over the counter without a prescription or medical exam.
President Joe Biden called on the FDA to make hearing aids available over the counter last year in his “Promoting Competition in the American Economy” executive order intended to lower costs and increase competition in certain industries.
Freund’s findings reveal that the shift to 3D printing led to a doubling or near doubling in producers’ exports after five years and the technology was the main cause for the rise in exports.
The authors also examined 35 other products, such as running shoes, aircraft parts and prosthetic limbs that are increasingly being 3D printed and they found similar patterns.
According to the paper, one reason behind the expansion is that printing hearing aids in high volumes require a large investment in technology and machinery. The countries that were early innovators — Denmark, Switzerland and Singapore — dominate exports of the product, while middle-income economies such as China, Mexico and Vietnam also have been able to substantially increase their market shares.
In addition, hearing aids are lightweight products, which makes them fairly cheap to ship internationally. The same is true for the other products the authors examined — lighter products are associated with more trade growth.
“Policymakers often view 3D printing as a means to shorten supply chains when in fact it is more likely to enhance trade and reshape supply chains,” said Freund, the former global director of trade, investment and competitiveness at the World Bank.
One caveat to the findings is that while the analysis of 3D printing’s impact on trade is positive, it has the possibility of being short-lived. If 3D printers become more accessible to local producers or even consumers in some sectors, production could be more localized, hindering development opportunities through trade.
City News Service contributed to this article.