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Opinion

Time to finance Asia's 3D printing revolution

Companies must prepare as technology moves out of laboratories into mainstream production

Students look at a tower produced by 3D printing: some 65% of children entering primary school today may later work in jobs that don't yet exist.   © VCG/Getty Images

Imagine walking into a shop, having your body scanned and walking out a few hours later with a complete new outfit -- courtesy of a three-dimensional printer.

It is by no means a fanciful notion. In the fashion industry, 3D printing was once the domain of high-end designers. Today it has moved beyond accessories to clothing, advancing from haute couture runways in Paris and Milan to online sales, albeit with a hefty price tag.

The technology, which originated in the 1980s when American Chuck Hull designed and printed a small cup, is now changing the way other products are made-from medical devices to sports shoes to aircraft parts. With support and preparation, this digital revolution can have an enormous impact on job creation, economic growth, and entrepreneurship in developing countries.

In Jordan, mobile innovation labs are using 3D printing to make prosthetics for war survivors. In China, the Netherlands, Russia, and the United States, homes have been built with 3D printing technology, raising speculation about its future impact on the housing market. Harvard researchers have even created a novel 3D printing method that gives sensing capabilities to soft robots, using a liquid-based 3D printable ink.

The International Data Corporation estimates that global spending on 3D printing-including hardware, materials, software and services-will be $13.8 billion in 2019, an increase of over 21% over 2018. By 2022, IDC expects worldwide spending to be nearly $22.7 billion. It cited manufacturing as the dominant industry for 3D printing, followed by health care providers and education and professional services.

A model presents a 3D printed creation: 3D printing is advancing from haute couture runways to online sales.   © Getty Images

Singapore, China, and South Korea have already identified the potential of 3D and are investing in it. Earlier this year, the Philippines government announced it was setting up the country's first Advanced Manufacturing Centre, which aspires to be the country's leading research center in innovative 3D printing technologies, processes, and materials. And last October in Singapore, Hewlett-Packard launched a research facility with Nanyang Technological University to focus on digital manufacturing technologies and 3D printing.

In short, it's evident that momentum for 3D printing has implications for many countries in East Asia, which historically have relied on exports and relatively low labor costs to develop their economies. Asia's garment industry is the most prominent example of this economic model.

3D printing offers a world of change. It could reduce labor costs because various product parts can be printed without the need for manual assembly. But it could also transform Asia's work force-in the garment sector and far beyond.

Some 65% of children entering primary school today may end up working in jobs that don't yet exist. The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimates that over the next 20 years, 50% of jobs -- accounting for $15 trillion in wages -- could be automated with existing technology. McKinsey's research also indicates that 75 million to 375 million workers, or between 3% and 14% of the global workforce, will switch occupations by 2030.

That's why governments, businesses, and educators need to think and act now to prepare for the jobs of tomorrow.

With technology and innovation changing the nature of work today and in the future, we need action and mindsets to shift to consider digital infrastructure -- and all the learning it can offer -- to become a necessary resource for all people. It is vital for governments to recognize action needs to begin now to upgrade the skills of job seekers.

We also need to spark entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs have been a vital essential component of Asia's economic growth. Their contribution to job creation and economic growth has been significant.

We know that technology can deliver equal opportunity. Put access to the internet in someone's hands and they can build a business, no matter who or where they are. In the coming years, private entrepreneurship and innovation, the main force behind the Asian miracle, will become even more important. So too will the actions of governments now to safeguard the future of the generations of workers to come.

At the International Finance Corporation, IFC, the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in emerging markets, we have supported Asia's economic transformation. In the early 1970s, we provided financing and advice that helped a South Korean company LG Electronics become one of emerging Asia's first globally competitive businesses. We also helped lay the foundation for what became the Stock Exchange of Thailand, mobilizing significant amounts of capital to finance the country's modernization.

That's why we're eager to support Asia's next major transformation. The coming digital revolution fueled by 3D printing and other technological innovations could speed up economic growth and improve the lives of millions. But only if preparations begin now. We need to think about not only extending internet access in emerging markets, but also creating new systems and pathways for the children of today and tomorrow to seize the opportunities of the future.

Years ago, the simple sewing machine revolutionized the garment industry. Innovations like 3D printing hold the prospect of spurring another revolution.

Vivek Pathak is the International Finance Corporation's (IFC) Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific. IFC is a member of the World Bank Group.

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