3D Printing: The Future is Here

by on June 10, 2011 · 649 comments

Have you heard about 3D printing yet? Bre Pettis, founder of Makerbot, a company that sells a $1300 home 3D printer, was Wednesday night’s guest on the The Colbert Report. And back in April, Public Knowledge kicked off what’s sure to be a long public debate over the legal and policy questions raised by 3D printing with a half-day conference here in D.C.

Also called “additive manufacturing,” 3D printing is the process of “printing” a three-dimensional object layer-by-layer with equipment that’s not much different from ink-jet printers. Combine 3D printing with 3D scanning and you’ve got the first real step towards something that seems at first like total science fiction: A Star Trek replicator.

The Future is Here

The current state of the art in 3D scanning and printing is already quite advanced. There’s already a growing legion of hobbyists building 3D printers in their basements and sharing object designs across the Internet. As in the early days of radio, these hobbyists are creators, not just consumers.

On the scanning side, for $2,995 you can buy your own NextEngine 3D scanner, which can do a completely automated 360-degree scan of (the surface of) objects up to 5.1” x 3.8” in size at 0.005 inch accuracy in under 30 minutes. For larger objects, you can scan a portion at a time and automatically stitch the scans together via software. The easy-to-use device connects to Windows PCs via USB and includes all necessary software. Don’t have $2,995? Not a problem. You can make your own 3D scanner with a cheap laser pointer, wine glass, videocamera or webcam, and a record player. No, really! Or just use the Microsoft Kinect Xbox 360 peripheral (example, source code). Too much effort? Get the $0.99 iPhone app or do it for free with any digital still camera and the My3DScanner website.

Once you’ve got a scan of the object you want to replicate (or you’ve created your own design using free software), you need a 3D printer. The printer that Jay Leno uses to replicate parts for his classic cars is now available for less than $15,000. For $1,299, you can buy a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic kit that you assemble (no pun intended) yourself. Still too much? You don’t need to buy your own 3D printer when you can use someone else’s. There are now several online 3D printing services where you can upload your scan or custom-designed 3D model and get the 3D printed model mailed to you. Pricing is based on the size of your object and the materials used and start at around $0.80 per cubic centimeter. Small trinkets and pieces of jewelry can be made for less than $30 each.

3D scanning and printing is already in use commercially today. There are already more than 10 million 3D printed hearing aids in use worldwide. Boeing is manufacturing some airplane parts using 3D printing. Again, Jay Leno is replicating worn-out parts to restore classic cars. And there’s at least one vehicle that will have all of its exterior components made by 3D printers.

The next step in 3D printing is combining multiple materials, which will allow 3D printers to print working electronic devices. The end-game is a self-replicating machine, long an engineering dream. The open design RepRap project has already succeeded in printing all of the custom plastic parts needed to make another RepRap machine.

3D Printing and Intellectual Property

Just as the tape recorder did for music and the videocamera did for television and movies, 3D replicators will soon make duplication of physical objects much easier—with major, and probably obvious, intellectual property ramifications. Just as most people think nothing of photocopying a page from a book or magazine, in a few years people may think nothing of using a 3D copier to make a copy of an earring when the other is lost, making a left-handed copy of a pair of right-handed scissors, or simply buying a single candlestick at a store and then making five more copies at home. While current home 3D printers and scanners may not yet be up to the task of these examples (which all involve relatively simple exterior-scanning), it’s worth pointing out that there’s no Digital Rights Management (DRM) in current devices.

Digital Rights Management is a catch-all term for manufacturer-designed built-in restrictions meant to ensure that devices can not be used to infringe copyrights. That’s why, for example, you can’t simply copy a purchased iPhone app to a friend’s iPhone. It’s not difficult to envision a future where home 3D printers are restricted to printing only pre-approved designs and/or are limited in the resolution and/or materials so that they are really only good for trinkets. This sort of thing has happened with previous technologies. Soon after VCRs entered the market, Hollywood tried very hard to control them (see Sony v. Universal).

Sure, such DRM controls could be “hacked” just as people have hacked DRM systems on cellphones, ereaders, videogame systems, etc. There’s even a great short story (or audiobook) by Bruce Sterling about a “fabrikator” owner hacking his device to print all sorts of things it’s not supposed to print. Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age revolves in large part over efforts to overcome the restrictions on nanotech-powered “matter compilers” intended to prevent users from compiling weapons or harmful substances.

It is also possible to envision a spectrum of DRM protections, ranging from—to use Jonathan Zittrain’s much-ballyhooed terminology—perfectly “generative” 3D printers limited only by their technological capabilities to more “appliancized,” regulated printers that are restricted to printing only approved designs in approved quantities. This is no different from how other industries operate today: Authors can decide to only distribute their books through DRM-protected services to DRM-protected ereaders or they can make them available without DRM. Recording artists and television and movie producers can do the same. Although there are a few cases of government-mandated DRM (e.g. the broadcast flag for television), most DRM systems are voluntary and market-negotiated. Personally, I don’t see why the field of 3D printing should be any different. Some consumers may be willing to pay a lower price for a DRM-enabled 3D printer and others may prefer to pay more for an unencumbered printer. Let the market decide.

3D Printing and Product Liability

What I find more interesting than the intellectual property issues involved in 3D printing are the product liability issues. The industrial and then digital revolutions have all but killed the concept of “buyer beware.” For how can the average buyer understand how today’s consumer electronics work and all the ways they can fail or injure someone?

Instead, many states impose strict liability on manufacturers for defects based on the belief that “the costs of injuries resulting from defective products [should be] borne by the manufacturers that put such products on the market rather than by the injured persons who are powerless to protect themselves.” (Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc., 377 P.2d 897 (1963), qtd. in Congressional Research Service, Products Liability: A Legal Overview, CRS Issue Brief, Jun. 3, 2005). Without strict liability for manufacturers, even if a consumer could prove an injury is due to a design or manufacturing defect, the injured consumer would likely only be able to recover from the retailer that sold them the defective product. But a major injury claim could bankrupt a retailer. So, rather than requiring the injured party to establish a chain of liability from the retailer to the distributor, supplier, and ultimately to the manufacturer, strict liability allows plaintiffs to directly sue the manufacturer of a product that caused injury.

When 3D print shops (one online directory lists over 600 such companies already in existence) become as commonplace as Kinko’s … sorry, FedEx Office, will they be considered the manufacturer? Imposing strict liability on them would likely kill 3D print shops.

Ponoko, a web-based 3D printing service that also allows designers to set up their own virtual CafePress for 3D objects) clearly disclaims any liability in its terms and conditions: “We accept no liability for any products displayed on the website, do not give any warranty nor make any representation about any products on the website, and are neither a seller nor agent of the designer, seller or buyer.” While that may seem to settle the matter, as someone in the audience at Public Knowledge’s event muttered, that might wel change the first time a child is injured by a 3D-printed item.

3D print shops like Ponoko allow designers to design and sell real physical products to real consumers without ever having seen the like Lulu’s print-on-demand for authors.” Presumably the designer would order and inspect at least one product themselves before making the product available to the public, but if they design a product that requires tolerances near the limits of what the 3D print shop’s equipment is capable of, some of the products may work just fine while others may fail catastrophically. Should the problem be considered a design defect for which the designer is responsible or a manufacturing defect for which the manufacturer (the 3D print shop) is responsible? Should both be responsible? This problem has likely already been dealt with in the traditional realm of product liability, but traditionally, designers of retail products were large companies. That means they had the resources to extensively test products before releasing them to market, they could purchase insurance and legal counsel, and they (hopefully) had the funds to pay for damages.

If a lone designer sells his or her wares through a Ponoko product gallery, placing liability on the designer for design, but not manufacturing, defects makes sense. But if the designer is a near-penniless “maker” artist, there’s no point in suing them. Personal injury attorneys tend to focus their sights on entities with deep pockets–and rightly so. And if a designer posts a design with a creative commons license to Thingiverse that is subsequently redesigned by a string of other designers (e.g. the planetary gearbox clock, or Stephen Colbert’s head), it may be very difficult indeed identifying which designer is responsible for the defect. While a “maker beware” doctrine may be sufficient for trinkets that people can print themselves (regardless of where they get the design), the widespread use of more complex and costly 3D-printed objects may be limited until there is some entity willing to provide a warranty.

Policy Implications

3D printing and scanning technology is about to change the world. Bre Pettis likened the Public Knowledge conference to the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club, which was seen as a watershed moment in the personal computer revolution. I share his excitement in attending the dawn of a new industry that could prove as important (possibly more important) as the Internet. But as the two examples above make clear, 3D printing raises serious policy questions.

Although the technologies involved are different, there are lots of similarities in the ways the public, media, and lawmakers respond to new technologies, whether the telegraph, Internet, or 3D printing. As Tom Standage has documented and Ithiel de Sola Pool predicted, “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.”

As we watch this new industry develop, the following questions will likely frame many debates:

  1. Which more important: The freedom to innovate or the need to hold someone responsible for any harms that occur?
  2. Where should liability lie when the exact cause of an injury cannot be determined?
  3. Should the law treat amateurs differently than professionals? If so, where should the line between them be drawn?
  4. What should the government’s role be in protecting intellectual property?
  5. Is the new technology a “natural monopoly” that must be regulated.

These questions are not unique to 3D printing. But unlike the Internet, which spent its first few years safely ensconced in the military industrial complex, away from malevolent users, malware, spam, and the court system, 3D printing is, by definition, based in the real world. Thus these questions will likely have to be answered sooner rather than later.

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