The man on the long side of the room chewing his nails turns out to be Missouri Republican Sam Graves, the chairman who bit his way through a hearing on “The Rise of 3D Printing: Opportunities for Entrepreneurs” on March 12. Washington visitors who wandered over to see their representatives in action may have hoped for a congressional version of "Shark Tank." The literal-minded spotted in that hearing title a chink in the mandatory view that entrepreneurs are the source of all ideas. If members of Congress have to identify the opportunities, it isn’t good news.
3D printing is the technology that allows you to make an object by piling up layers of plastic, metal or some other material. Jewelry, phone cases, lenses, tools, bones, you name it – and the witnesses did – this technology can do it. 3D printing inspires phrases like paradigm-shifting and business-disrupting. It’s the new Internet but with more potential for the elderly. Baby boomers could make their own hip replacements in the basement and carry them down to the hospital for installation.
Regrettably, nobody asked whether these printers will require you to replace the cartridge when it’s still a third full. Or whether you have to restart hip production if the cartridge runs out half-way through.
Members of the committee weren’t being entrepreneurial, however. They were there to get out of the entrepreneurial way. Arizona Republican David Schweikert worried that drawing Congress’s attention to something that was doing well was asking for trouble. Not holding a hearing would be one way to get out of the way. Holding the hearing in front of the Small Business Committee is another way to avoid attention.
Missouri Republican Blaine Luetkemeyer asked whether government is an obstacle to any of the cutting-edge activity. He was disappointed to hear a “no” and volunteered the health care law as a problem. Luetkemeyer acknowledged that businesses in such a new industry may be too small to be troubled by Obamacare, but 3D printing promises growth that will eventually be enough to encounter the problem.
New Jersey Democrat Donald Payne Jr. hinted at the very thing Republicans worried about: Congressional action. Payne wondered whether the 3D printers could make weapons, a non-detectable firearm, for example. The implication was Congress could find something to ban. Although banning guns seems a distant possibility, how about home-made hips?