Do you know what a “physible” is? Manufacturers of consumer products should probably start brushing up on the term — and the place they need to start studying is Pirate Bay, the website infamous for being the world’s most resilient bitTorrent site. Or, as reps from the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) likely think of it, Public Enemy No. 1.
Pirate Bay doesn’t store files (which is what got Megaupload into trouble), so it has withstood attempts to take it down based on the sharing of copyrighted digital media. However, it is probably the world’s most popular website for tracking the torrent files that let file sharers transfer music, movies, software and other in-demand (and usually illegally distributed) media via bitTorrent. In other words, if people want to download a copy of something, they go to Pirate Bay for directions on where to find it.
On Jan. 23, a blog entry on Pirate Bay’s website declared that it is going to start tracking a new category of digital files: physibles, which are plans for 3D objects that are printed by increasingly popular 3D printers. Pronouncements such as, “we believe that in the near future you will print your spare parts for your vehicles” may sound farfetched now, but 3D printing technology is rapidly improving and getting cheaper.
The first commercially available 3D printers were used mainly for industrial prototyping. Then hobbyists started to build versions that could be used to print increasingly complex objects. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, several models were introduced that are aimed squarely at home users, including the $1,299 Cubify and $1,099 MakerBot Thing-O-Matic. All that’s required to build a perfect replica of an object is its corresponding instruction file (physible), a 3D printer and a cartridge containing plastic.
These printers are currently limited in the size and type of object they can build, but each generation is smaller, more capable and cheaper. Critics who think it’s inconceivable that people could someday be printing perfect replicas of commercial products such as equipment parts, toys or other items at home should consider the laser printer.
First released to the home market by Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) 28 years ago, HPQ’s debut laser printer was priced at $3,495 and managed 8 pages per minute at 300 dots per inch resolution. Today you can get a laser printer with over 10 times that resolution and prints 20 pages per minute — for under $75, including enough toner to last for a year. What used to be commercial-quality printing capability, in the home, for pennies a page.
History has proved how difficult it is to prevent the sharing of digital media, and once 3D printer technology is perfected, the companies that make these devices may well be part of a huge growth industry. if so, manufacturers of many consumer goods will be looking at what happened to the CD and DVD industries — and hoping sites like Pirate Bay aren’t still around.