Over the past few days I’ve seen a couple of articles relating to 3D printing which in turn amazed and shocked me. These articles discussed; how a patient had 3/4 of their skull replaced with a 3D printed version (presumably for good medical reason), and that a license had been issued to a company who are intending to 3D-print a gun (apparently the debates about this are well known, but it was news to me).
The ability to cheaply and easily create any object will introduce some interesting new challenges for large and small industries. In the next couple of years I’m sure it is going to become commonplace to print 3D objects in the home.
Right now it’s a geeky thing, for the very early adopters with high disposable incomes, but if you use the inkjet printer as a starting point, it’s easy to imagine in a few years from now seeing a battered multi-purpose scanner/photocopier/inkjet/3D printer discarded by the side of the street with a sticker on it saying “Take me. I work. Need ink and thermoplastic”.
To illustrate the potential issues, let’s take an example that is close to (my) home … Let’s say I 3D print a part of a Lego™ mini-figure, because Luke Skywalker’s head went missing under the bed somewhere. Clearly, this is a copyright infringement and Lego™ of Denmark should be worried. Suddenly their Intellectual Property is not only leaking through the mass production markets who are well known for making copies of copyrighted things (you know who you are), it’s also leaking in a thousand different anonymous households around the world.
Based on the experience seen in some other industries, where there have been attempts to limit this IP leakage by restricting the features of hardware – think region control for DVD’s and the original iTunes with restrictions on the number of downloads and devices (known as Digital Rights Management)- is it possible that larger manufacturers could conspire to impose controls over the capabilities of the 3D printers themselves ? Built in copy-locking, a mechanism that automatically applies a charge for certain objects, and an inability for the printer to replicate a non-locked version of itself could be some functions mandated.
How about if each 3D printer was rendered incapable of printing something deemed undesirable such as guns, ammunition, drugs, body parts …
This sounds incredibly difficult to achieve, and would raise many ethical issues, but I can definitely imagine this being conceived and maybe happening.
It is also possible that some companies will see this as an opportunity to publish their product designs, charging a licence fee for use, thereby increasing the penetration of their product into the market, and reducing their cost to manufacture and distribute.
Maybe product designers and the manufacturing industry are just about to get the thrashing that the music industry has had – where the value of a bit of unique IP (Music) is diluted so much that the original creator never sees much reward at all.