Bureaucrats, technology and 3D printers

Last week, a tweet caught my attention about a committee set up by the government to issue no-objection certificates (NOC) for importing 3D printers into Pakistan. The committee consists of 10 bureaucrats representing various ministries and organizations, including home affairs, trade, IT and telecommunications, FBR, SECP and intelligence agencies. However, the committee is only empowered to make recommendations to the “competent authority”, and only for plastic 3D printers. Metal 3D printers have a separate process of security clearance, while certain specialized printers with sophisticated functions are limited overall.

The application for NOC must be made on a prescribed form together with an affidavit that the printer will not be used to manufacture weapons, firearms or other illegal items. In addition, the applicant must provide his CNIC, national tax number, information on technical literature and specifications of the 3D printer, justification for the import, port of entry, intended use of the printer and information on the use of the printer. In the case of a company, it must also provide its certificate of registration, company profile, and details of the CEO and board members.

Although the importer can import the spare parts for the printer under the same NOC, this import must take place within the validity period of the NOC, which shows that it is a time-bound document. This means that the importer may need to reapply for a NOC if a part needs to be imported after the expiry.

The aim of such a restrictive policy in Pakistan would probably be to prevent easy access to illegal weapons. But illegal weapons remain easily accessible in this country anyway and it remains unfathomable why someone should go to so much effort to manufacture a plastic weapon. Second, and more importantly, anything that has ever been banned by the government will remain available everywhere, albeit with a black market premium. In addition to not delivering the desired results, such policies can also create unnecessary delays and inconvenience for the private sector and retirement opportunities for regulators.

I spoke to a 3D printer importer in Islamabad who said this whole process could take three to six months. No receipt or reference number is provided when submitting the application and must proactively report to the Home Office. After issuing the NOC, as soon as the printer reaches the port, customs will ask for confirmation from the Ministry of Interior. In the meantime, the importer has to bear the storage costs. For a new NOC he has to go through exactly the same process every time. Because of this cumbersome process, gray imports would be encouraged.

While Pakistan continues to fear 3D printing, the world is taking a very different path. The global 3D printing market is expected to double every three years, with 3D printers being retailed in many countries. A number of sectors such as industrial manufacturing, automotive, electronic products, medical devices, etc. are rapidly using technology to make better products faster. Interestingly, while North America and Europe are currently the fastest adopters of 3D printing technology, Asia is catching up quickly in this race and realizing its transformation potential.

Bureaucracies tend to be risk averse, so their best defense against any new technology is to ban it altogether or impose excessive restrictions. But such an archaic approach today can leave a country far behind. Rather than fear the technology, our bureaucracy should consult science and industry and develop a better and more focused approach to regulation with selective restrictions. We need to realize that we cannot move forward in the 21st century with a 19th century mindset.

Posted in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2021.

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