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The Future of Asia: Forces of Change and Potential Surprises – Supplementary Report

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Three-Dimensional Printing’s Effects on Value Chains

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What is it?
Why is it important?

What is it?

Additive manufacturing, commonly known as three-dimensional or 3D printing, is a process whereby a solid object is assembled based on a digital model. The model can be derived from an optical scan of a real-world model or from a design created on a computer. Printing is performed by successively adding layers of material on top of each other. 3D printing is increasingly used in all fields of human endeavour. Though it is currently best known for printing in plastics, it can print in a wide range of materials, including metals, food products (e.g., chocolate), and even biological cells.1

In recent years there has been major growth in the sales of 3D printing machines, and their price has dropped significantly. Machines that once cost $20,000 now cost $1,000 or less.2 According to the consulting firm Wohlers Associates, the global market for 3D printers and services has had a compound annual growth rate of 27.4% between 2010 and 2012.3 Credit Suisse forecasts the market to continue to grow at about 20% annually until at least 2020.4 The Chinese market is a large and growing fraction of the global market, with a China-based industry association asserting that it may become the world’s largest market for 3D printers by 2016. 5

Why is it important?

The ability to print any item will have implications for all players in a distribution chain, potentially changing how we define producers, consumers and distributors. For individuals and firms, it will be possible to mass-produce and even mass-customize commercial products, changing how goods and services are created, exchanged and disposed of. Three-dimensional printing thus has the potential to transform entire national economic structures.6  7 This will present significant challenges and opportunities for governments across Asia and the entire world.

However, Asia faces particular challenges. Southeast Asia has traditionally been the “workshop for the world,” taking advantage of low wages and a favourable climate for mass production. As private institutions in other parts of the world develop the capacity to produce commercial products, this could reduce their reliance on the region. 9 Apart from producing goods for their own large domestic market, Asian governments could be forced to develop new ways of encouraging manufacturing production and growth.


  1. “3D printing ‘will change the world'” Agence France Presse. November 2013. http://www.arabnews.com/news/479031(link is external)
  2. Bilton, N. “Disruptions: On the Fast Track to Routine 3-D Printing.” New York Times. February 2013. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/disruptions-3-d-printing-is-on-the-fast-track/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130218&_r=0(link is external)
  3. “Wohlers Report 2013 Reveals Continued Growth in 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing.” Wohler Associates Website. May 2013. http://wohlersassociates.com/press59.html(link is external)
  4. Maxey, K. “3D Printing will be Much Bigger than Expected.” Engineering.com. September 2013. http://www.engineering.com/3DPrinting/3DPrintingArticles/ArticleID/6358/3D-Printing-Will-Be-Much-Bigger-Than-Expected.aspx(link is external)
  5. Chen, T. “Aurora Given 3D Printer China Distribution Rights.” The China Post. September 2013. http://www.chinapost.com.tw/business/company-focus/2013/09/26/389838/Aurora-given.htm(link is external)
  6. “Manufacturing: The third industrial revolution.” The Economist. April 2012. http://www.economist.com/node/21553017(link is external)
  7. Kelly, H. “Study: At-home 3-D printing could save consumers ‘thousands’.” CNN. July 2013. http://whatsnext.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/31/study-at-home-3-d-printing-could-save-consumers-thousands/(link is external)
  8. Chan, M. “What 3-D Printing Could Mean for the World’s Factory – China.” Bloomberg News. September 2013. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-09-26/what-3-d-printing-could-mean-for-the-world-s-factory-china.html(link is external)
  9. D’Aveni, R. “3-D Printing Will Change the World.” Harvard Business Review. March 2013. http://hbr.org/2013/03/3-d-printing-will-change-the-world/ar/pr
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Policy Horizons Canada, also referred to as Policy Horizons, is an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.

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