3D printing global value chains: How new technology is restructuring production in the 21st Century

Martha Rehnberg

Studenteropgave: Kandidatafhandlinger


From the steam revolution of the 19th Century, the containerization and ICT in the 2ost Century, and the Internet that pierced into this century, the role that technology has played in enabling the globalization of production is well recognized. For some years now, 3D printing (3DP) has been debated as a technology that may revolutionize manufacturing by eradicating outmoded processes in global production. The technology promises to lower laborintensity in manufacturing, the need for costly transportation, and wasteful use of raw material. For politicians in the Western countries, 3DP is a tool to bring jobs back home. For businessmen and women, it is a tool to optimize bottomlines and bring new products to market faster. While all these aspects of 3DP may be true for production, less attention is directed towards the implications of 3DP on value distribution and value creation in the global arena. In a critical realist fashion, the following thesis is built on the presumption that technology is a source of power to control and coordinate production. The way in which technology is applied, defines our ability to distribute and create value in order to transform, as opposed to reproduce, systems of production. Understanding the application of 3DP today is therefore important to understand implications tomorrow for politics and business internationally. A theoretical framework is constructed from the approach of Global Value Chains, National Innovation Systems and an eclectic set of academic contributions to 3DP. A three-step approach to understanding impact from 3DP on global production systems and is proposed. First, a historical analysis of technology and production from the 19th to the 21st century shows that value chains of production are increasingly designed to respond to market information, flexibly and swiftly. This is followed by a desiccation of the technological conditions that make restructuring of GVCs from 3DP possible. Here it is argued that 3DP amplifies ongoing trends in production, such as mass customization. Two scenarios of GVC restructuring from 3DP are presented; one in which 3DP is used as a complement to traditional manufacturing technologies, and one in which 3DP is substituting traditional manufacturing technologies. It is argued that both scenarios generate an increased amount of value in production, though the way in which this value is distributed will depend on the ability of actors to access 3DP. In the final step of the analysis, South Africa is analyzed as a suggestive case of an emerging country where both scenarios of 3DP are explored. The findings in this section suggest that a more nuanced view to technology access is needed. Here, it is argued that the technology promise of 3DP is not only determined by an actor’s ability to import and develop 3DP, but also by an actor’s ability to access market information. In the light of a 3D printed reality, where transactions are digital, designers and buyers both local and global, and value both proprietary and free, a last reflection is dedicated to challenge the underlying assumptions of how value is defined in the global production of the 21st century.

UddannelserCand.merc.pol International Business and Politics, (Kandidatuddannelse) Afsluttende afhandling
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