When the coronavirus reared up in the U.S. in March, 3D printing workshops — including those in plastics companies — were among the first to pivot and start cranking out face shields and protective gear in short supply for health care workers.
Now, some in the 3D printing industry are pivoting to government policy and arguing that tariffs from the trade war by President Donald Trump's administration on China are hurting efforts to fight COVID-19.
They're seeking relief from the import duties, including for the specialized engineering plastics materials that additive manufacturing operations need.
3D printer company MakerBot Industries LLC and the Consumer Technology Association both told U.S. trade officials in recent letters that since additive manufacturing has proven crucial to making supplies for hospitals and the public, it should be exempted from China tariffs.
3D printing equipment and materials from China face a 25 percent tariff, imposed in the early stages of the U.S.-China trade conflict in 2018.
"MakerBot's 3D printer products are critical in the medical response to COVID-19 and instrumental in the manufacturing of personal protective equipment at all domestic levels, from the hobbyist trying to assist a local doctor's office to large-scale medical operations, such as hospitals," Yuval Avni, chief financial officer of the Brooklyn-based firm, said in an April 8 letter to U.S. trade officials.
The comments came in response to a formal inquiry opened in late March by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, asking for feedback on changes to China tariffs because of the spreading coronavirus outbreak in the United States. USTR received more than 500 comments from a wide range of industries.
As 3D printing operations have ramped up, Avni told the government that his firm has been offering "large discounts" to cities, hospitals and universities, and at times giving away the plastic filament materials used to 3D print PPE. But tariffs are an impediment, he said.
"The tariffs limit MakerBot's ability to make 3D printing products more affordable and accessible at a time when all PPE and other manufacturing efforts are needed," he said, adding that they "greatly impact the extent to which MakerBot can make resources available."
"The United States currently cannot manufacture or supply adequate quantities of PPE for medical professionals, let alone the entire U.S. population," he said.
Avni told USTR that since the outbreak came to the United States, the Brooklyn-based company has learned of many efforts to use its 3D printers to make medical gear at libraries and hospitals.
One of its contract manufacturers has been using them to make thousands of PPE per week, and Avni said his company's been working with Columbia University and Tangible Creative to make and distribute 3D printed PPE to hospitals.
Tariffs threaten those programs, he said.
"Many of the efforts … are not sustainable with the current imposition of the 301 tariffs on MakerBot's 3D printer products as the costs of these tariffs directly affect our ability to maintain our inventory and supply chain, manufacture PPE to distribute and provide discounts on an alternative means for citizens to print their own PPE," Avni said, referring to Section 301 of U.S. law that gives the president authority to set tariffs.
MakerBot declined to elaborate beyond its government filing.
Arlington, Va.-based CTA joined with MakerBot, telling the USTR that it should give tariff exemptions to "3D printers and raw materials enabling both companies and individuals to produce medical and other products such as face shields."
In an April 29 letter, it urged U.S. policymakers to consider many types of nonmedical technologies — including electronics for telehealth and emergency responders, drones to deliver supplies and WiFi hot spots for communities — important in the fight against the pandemic.
"Products imported by CTA member companies that are needed to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak are not simply those directly related to medical care or otherwise limited to medical uses," CTA said.
China has a large 3D printing and materials industry. Fort Collins, Colo.-based Wohlers Associates Inc., which has written an annual report tracking the industry globally for 25 years, estimates China has the second-largest installed capacity of industrial 3D printing machines in the world, after the United States.