After my story about the MakerBot 3D printer appeared in eWEEK a few days ago, I received a few emails from friends and colleagues about this rapidly developing technology.
A couple thought that the fact that I watched one churn out everything from turbine wheels to Lego blocks at CeBIT was incredibly cool. But there was another undertone that also came across—fear.
There are some people who are worried about the device that MakerBot has wrought. A colleague told me in an email that he found the idea of 3D scanning and printing fascinating, but also a little frightening. There are a number of things that people worry about, which might explain the trepidation. Is it legal to copy another object and make copies quickly and easily? Suppose you copy and send someone a dangerous object?
But as Michael Weinberg, vice president of Public Knowledge explains, this is nothing new. “Since we have had the tools to make objects, we’ve had the tools to copy objects,” Weinberg said, “so there’s not anything new about this.” However, he did note that the advent of quick, easy and relatively inexpensive 3D printing is causing people to think about the technology in a new way.
This is not to suggest that 3D printing is new, because it’s not. Weinberg said that what’s really happening is that the original patents have run out and much of the technology is in the public domain. He said that what’s new is that the technology is accessible to consumers. This means that for the first time, people can download object design files from the Internet, email those files to each other and happily reproduce objects out of those designs.
What’s important is that the objects you can make with a 3D printer aren’t normally protected by copyright, as Weinberg explained in a recent paper. Basically objects that can be copyrighted are things like sculpture because they’re artistic expressions. Ordinary useful objects, say a screwdriver or a turbine wheel, aren’t copyrighted and can’t be.
However, objects can be patented and if you do a 3D copy of a patented object, then you’ve infringed on the patent. Right now the disruptive nature of easily accessible 3D printing has caused a certain amount of consternation regarding exactly what can be created and what can’t be. Weinberg said the biggest worry there is that somebody will try to extend copyright laws to include physical objects beyond art. “It would create havoc to extend copyrights to objects without being incredibly thoughtful,” he said.
3D Printers More Affordable, Simple Than Ever, But Not a Threat
But the fact is that now that MakerBot has brought 3D printing and now 3D scanning to the world of consumers, the technology has also become disruptive. Some years ago 3D printing was expensive, which limited it mainly to medical, forensic and archeological studies, such as the reconstruction of the skull of England’s King Richard III, or to the dental lab where technicians can create a cap or an implant in a few minutes. Now, anyone with some technical knowledge and a couple thousand dollars can start printing objects they create, objects they can download from MakerBot’s library of things (the Thingiverse) or objects they can share by email.
But suppose you were to email an object that’s really dangerous? With current consumer technology, it’s certainly possible that you could e-mail a sharp object such as a hunting knife, but you can also go buy one at Wal-Mart for a lot less money and it’ll probably be a better knife.
The thing that people forget about 3D printers is that they create objects out of easily moldable plastic or in some cases laser sintered plastic. The objects they turn out are normally a model of an object that you plan to manufacture out of some more durable material. Likewise, 3D printers are limited in their resolution to something approximating the thickness of a human hair, which averages 100 microns in diameter. That’s pretty exact, but it’s not precise enough for really dangerous stuff, like nuclear weapon parts.
But that doesn’t make easy, inexpensive 3D printing any less disruptive. At this point we really don’t know what’s going to come out of the ability to rapidly and inexpensively create objects then press a button to make accurate copies of them. We don’t know what will happen when people can have an infinite storehouse of objects they need and will need to be replaced eventually. You never have to worry about running out of Lego blocks, for example, but more important, you can invent new and different Lego blocks and share them with others.
What’s actually happened is something that’s an improvement on things that we have been doing for centuries. A few millions years ago a hunter somewhere created a more effective arrowhead, but only after 100 tries accomplished by painstakingly flaking pieces of flint by hand. But once that design was known to work, then others could copy the design, and an entire group would have more effective arrow heads.
What MakerBot and other machines like it have accomplished is the modern equivalent of that hand-crafted arrowhead prototype, but improved by a magnitude of hundreds. It will change much about how some companies do business, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.