For decades, the District of Columbia has been frozen out of manufacturing by high real estate prices and a general lack of space. The District is 67 square miles of densely packed urban life. Any serious form of manufacturing has always seemed out of reach, but welcome to the revolution. We sit at the dawn of a new era of manufacturing — know variously as micro-manufacturing, additive manufacturing, and 3D printing.
Micro-manufacturing uses three dimensional printers to produce specialty products for a stunningly wide variety of applications. Essentially the printers use a computer aided design to progressively add layers of material to a basic shape.
Instead of ink, the printers use a wide variety of materials ranging from titanium to human cartilage to produce fully functional components, including complex mechanisms, batteries, transistors and LEDs. The capabilities of 3D printing hardware have evolved rapidly over the last five years. They can build larger components and achieve greater precision and finer resolution at higher speeds with lower costs.
According to the attached McKinsey Global Institute report, these factors have brought micro-manufacturing to a tipping point: “it appears ready to emerge from niche status and become a viable alternative to conventional manufacturing processes in an increasing number of applications.”
The impact this technology could have on the District is immense. For the first time ever, the District could become a legitimate specialty manufacturing hub. Some of the advantages of this technology are it’s small, nearly silent and relatively cheap, which makes it perfectly suited for small businesses working with a limited amount of space. This industry will probably grow in the District regardless of what District government does, but DC can facilitate an acceleration in the adoption and deployment of this technology.
There is currently no “hotbed” of micro-manufacturing. If the District decided it was going to become the best place in the country to start and run a 3D printing business, that title is up for grabs. It could pass a “Start your Micro-Manufacturing Business in the District Now Act of 2014,” that could be used to clear out red-tape to help entrepreneurs get their micro-manufacturing businesses up and running. The District could help by expediting the licensing process, quickly issuing home occupancy permits, and taking other measures to remove the barriers to starting this type of business.
We could also take money from the budget surplus to provide a tax credit to help small businesses reduce the cost of purchasing a 3D printer, which can run from $2,500 to over $20,000. This would have the advantage of being a subsidy for small business owners as opposed to large developers. The District could provide other tax preferences to encourage the growth of this industry in high-need parts of the city like Wards 5,7, and 8.
Micro-manufacturing has the potential to employ thousands of DC residents in relatively high paying jobs. 3D printer operators typically earn $18-$20 per hour, and these positions do not require a college degree. Its impact on economic growth in the District could be serious and long-lasting.
Please take a few moments to read the report. It makes clear that the time to embrace this industry is now.