From the Publisher: 3-D Revolution

At Georgia Trend, one of our focuses is to predict future economic trends, bring attention to them and address ways to avoid negative outcomes.

Trade wars and self-driving cars and trucks will produce major economic headwinds for our state because Georgia is so dependent on trade and shipping from our ports along the coast, and none of these threats have been addressed in recent political dialogue. And there is new technology to add to the mix that could have a negative impact on our state. 3-D printing is coming of age.

3-D printing will transform the world’s and Georgia’s labor market, shipping, transportation and retail industries. The technology, also commonly known as additive manufacturing (AM), uses data or a file to “print” layers of a material on top of each other to form a 3-D object. Almost anything from a toothbrush to a high-tech aircraft part can be made by printing it off right in your living room or factory floor.

For instance, if Lockheed Martin here in Georgia was missing material to make one of its transport airplanes, production usually has to wait until some of the parts are manufactured somewhere else around the world, then potentially shipped through the Panama Canal and into the Port of Savannah, then by rail to the facility in Marietta. With 3-D printing, however, Lockheed could now manufacture the product on site and not wait until it is manufactured and shipped from some distant location.

3-D printing for aircraft parts is not a futuristic development. In 2014, General Electric (GE) Aviation brought additive manufacturing to its facility in Auburn, Ala., to produce fuel nozzles for the company’s LEAP jet engine. There are 20 fuel nozzles in every engine, setting the stage for long-term production at the Auburn facility, where the company plans to produce up to 40,000 annually by 2020.

GE says the process to build the fuel nozzles is unlike traditional manufacturing methods that use human labor to mill or cut away from a slab of metal to produce a part. Instead, additive manufacturing “grows” parts directly from a CAD file using layers of fine metal powder and an electron beam or laser. The result is a fully formed part without the waste, manufactured in a fraction of the time it would take using the old method.

3-D printing can be used for many other items now being manufactured overseas and shipped to retail stores in the U.S. What will happen when people can print out a trashcan, toothbrush or Christmas gifts? Specialized retail and department stores could lose out to this technology, and governments could see sales tax revenues fall. Also transportation, shipping and delivery could be seriously affected because it will significantly reduce the number of items being shipped.

In Georgia, the ports in Savannah and Brunswick could be affected because 65 percent of their container business comes from Asia, with China accounting for much of the volume. Companies like FedEx and Georgia-based UPS, cargo shipping operations, airlines and railroads could all be impacted.

The technology for 3-D printing is still in its infancy, but so was the internet before it exploded in popularity in the late 1990s, changing many industries forever. 3-D printing, too, will soon enter the phase of mainstream adoption in our culture, like the iPhone did a decade ago. In the near future, every home will have a 3-D printer.

Georgia’s economy should be safe, because agriculture is the largest economic engine for the state, and its largest exporter. 3-D printing uses plastics and metal in powdered form, so demand for powders made of aluminum, cobalt, nickel and other industrial metals is poised to take off in the next decade. Georgia’s ports might convert from imports of consumer goods to taking in shipments of these powered metals.

However, the sales tax dilemma is real. There are bills in the legislature that would shift the tax burden away from property and income taxes to retail sales taxes, a major source of funding for state government. This 3-D printing growth and development puts retail sales and the taxes it produces at serious risk.

Let’s not wake up one day and find revenues from sales taxes going away due to this new technology without a plan to find alternative revenues. Is it possible that a study committee made up of government, business and community leaders could address ways to meet some of these challenges? It’s something to think about.

Categories: Neely Young