The 3D printing boom is approaching

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Image: Creative Tools (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Image: Creative Tools (Flickr/Creative Commons)

In February, US President Obama left millions of Americans scratching their heads when during his State of the Union address he stated,  “A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything.”

And he is absolutely correct. Although still in its infancy, the sky is the limit when it comes to the potential 3D printing has in revolutionising industries. What the Internet has already done for business in terms of creativity, the sharing of ideas and information, and, efficiency, 3D printing can do for manufacturing. 3D printing could lead to goods usually manufactured in plants such as, furniture or household appliances, now being made in your own bedroom, from your own printer.

In terms of medicine, synthetic body parts could, in the not too distant future, be printed for transplant patients. During his TED speech, Anthony Atala 3D printed a fully functioning human kidney live on stage. Although, the technology is not yet developed enough to be utilised in patients, development in the field is quickly growing. In fact, only a few years ago scientists were going wild over printing tissues, now, kidneys, heart valves and livers have all been successfully printed. I dare say it is not far off until these organs are ready to be used in human transplants.

A boom is on the way

There is a method of 3-D printing named ‘laser sintering’. Laser sintering is a technique that relies on the use of powdered plastic which leads to much greater quality in the finish of 3-D printed products. Currently, a select few 3-D printing manufacturers use patent law to control laser sintering. These manufacturers prevent users sourcing the powdered plastic from third parties, and, prevent other companies from implementing laser sintering into their devices. This makes the cost of 3-D laser sintering very high and deters many entrepreneurs from entering the market.

Fortunately, these patents are set to expire within two years. Based on what happened patents on fused deposition modelling expired, it is fair to assume, that, mass produced printers which implement laser sintering technology from China and other countries will enter the market. This will make such technology more affordable to the general public and allow greater open-source collaboration.

There is fear that this approaching boom may have a few negative consequences. There is an entire community dedicated to 3D printing guns.  A simple torrent search will provide countless results for 3-D printable weapons. Although, many of these guns do not last after a few rounds, it is not long until they catch up to the quality of their non-printed counterparts.

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A whole new set of legal challenges

After Cody Wilson uploaded a video of himself firing a semiautomatic gun with a printed magazine on Youtube, Congress is attempting to ban 3D printing from being used in weapon manufacturing, arguing that because they evade metal detectors they are a risk to national security. However, how law enforcement will act to monitor what one prints in their own home remains to be seen.

There is a persistent fear that 3-D printing could cause copyright infringement. Theoretically, 3D printing could be utilised mimic anything. For example, the plans for a phone could be illegally downloaded and then 3D printed. This is comparable to how Napster changed music, however, rather than solely pirating music, this future Napster could potentially lead to the pirating of any tangible intellectual property.

With so much growth potential in the coming years, it is unsure how the legal challenges this new technology presents will be solved. Whether the law can keep up with the exponential growth of 3D printing is a good question. I believe 3D printing will change the way we look at copyright entirely. As Scott Summers founder of Bespoke Innovations boldly says, “3D printing was initially a solution looking for a problem. With any world changing technology, it only matters once it actually does change the world.” And change the world it will.