I start with a story:

Many years ago (in the Apple II days), before the Internet took off, and the online choices were bulletin boards and some ftp clients, I was headed to Toronto to speak at a conference. This was well before NAFTA was created. As I went through immigration, I was asked if I had any business materials. I showed the officer my floppy disks containing my presentations, at which time I was informed that I could not bring software into the country without an import license. Rather than argue, I said he could keep the discs. He then said, “Don’t you need them?”

“No,” I said, “because on the way to the hotel I will stop at a store, buy some blank discs and then download my software from the US where you can’t touch it.”

Now here’s the thing. First, never argue with an immigration officer who is holding your passport. Second, the words “where you can’t touch it,” were totally unnecessary. I had time to reflect on these things while sitting in a holding cell for an hour or so, after which the officer came in, gave me my passport and discs and said I could leave.

My point is that, even years ago, it was evident to some of us that a global network would render tariffs meaningless, especially in the digital domain. Many years later, when Nicholas Negroponte said “Bits are the new atoms,” he talked about a huge economy based on intangible goods that travel through the aether without regard to national boundaries. He was right, but the world of commerce is made of more than tangible goods. It will be a long time from now before someone figures out how to pass a bottle of a good Merlot through the Internet!

In the information domain, bits remain bits. A digitized movie can be sent through the internet and displayed without ever having to be put on physical media. An e-book can be downloaded and read without ever having to be printed. But, with 3D printers, instructions for building parts for a machine can be sent over the Internet, and turned into actual physical parts on a 3D printer. The same parts that would be subject to import duties can now bypass customs, and be completely undetected. Atoms are the new bits!

My comment, “where you can’t touch it,” is even more true today than it was when I first made the point. While we still aren’t talking about a good Merlot – yet – there are many other physical items of value that can cross borders without detection (and without import duties.) A quick perusal of Thingiverse (www.thingiverse.com) shows a wide collection of things that can be made with inexpensive printers like those made by Afinia. They range from the practical to the artistic, and you are encouraged to post your own designs as well. Of course, if you have a proprietary part to build, you just design it using design software, and save the result as an STL (stereolithography) file. This file can then be encrypted and sent as an e-mail attachment to the person in another country who can then print it out of plastic or other materials locally.

And, as for the wine, food replicators are in the process of being designed, and it is just a matter of time before this challenge is addressed.

Tariffs are dead, and the first countries to realize this have the chance to look at the positive impact on local economies when every business – no matter how small – is a global business. The 3D printer is an economic leveler and the trigger for a new industrial revolution.

Just don’t hand a copy of this blog to the immigration officer the next time you enter a foreign country.