GAO’s Technology Assessments: 3D Printing

Technology_Assessment_MedallionYou may be familiar with our traditional reports, testimonies, and legal decisions, but do you know about our technology assessments? Today’s WatchBlog explains them before highlighting our recent look at 3D printing.

What are technology assessments?

Our Chief Scientist and Chief Technologist and their highly specialized staff provide unbiased information on scientific and technical developments that affect society, the environment, and the economy. Our assessments so far have included

  • nanomanufacturing, applying the “science of the small” to commercial markets and mass manufacturing;
  • neutron detectors, used at ports and elsewhere to detect radiation, including illicit radioactive material;
  • climate engineering, aimed at producing a desired stable state for the Earth’s climate; and
  • 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, which could fundamentally change the production and distribution of goods (more below).

desktop 3D printer3D Printing

Using a growing variety of materials and processes, 3D printing creates an object without the need for molds or casts. While this technology has been used primarily as a design and prototyping tool, it’s now shifting to direct production of functional parts—such as medical implants or aircraft engine parts—that are ready for distribution and sale.

With 3D printing, these parts can be
•    designed and possibly produced faster;
•    highly customized;
•    made with alternative, better-performing materials; and
•    produced in small batches.

GAO-15-505SP(Excerpted from GAO-15-505SP)

We held a forum on 3D printing with officials from government, business, academia, and nongovernmental organizations. Participants concluded that 3D printing will not replace conventional manufacturing, but will add to it in areas where it is most cost effective.

Our forum participants identified a few other barriers to widespread use, such as
•    ensuring quality,
•    having more robust tools to design and execute patterns, and
•    building a large, skilled workforce in this area.

Participants also discussed areas for potential government involvement. For example, the government could coordinate standards setting and consider risks to intellectual property rights. In light of the many uncertainties about the future of this rapidly evolving technology, participants encouraged a continuing national dialogue on the federal role in 3D printing.

Our Chief Scientist, Timothy Persons, explains more:


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Timothy M. Persons, Ph.D., at personst@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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