Remember what it was like when consumers could open Napster and then download any song they wanted … for free? Well, the recording industry sure does; it’s never fully recovered from its transition to digital even after Napster has come and gone.
Now, the manufacturing world in general — essentially any company that builds and sells a physical product — is beginning to wake up to the potential of 3D printing to wreak similar havoc on their business.
The reaction, predictably, is a growing movement to shackle 3D printers — machines that use a digital blueprint to “print” a three-dimensional, physical object by repeatedly layering melted plastic — before the horse is out of the barn.
These devices have been around for decades, but long were very expensive and limited to commercial applications where they could be used for tasks like rapid prototyping. That changed with the rise of “maker” culture and the introduction of 3D printers like the Makerbot Thing-O-Matic, aimed at hobbyists. Last year, 3D printers broke the $1,000 barrier and at CES 2013, 3D printers aimed at the home by companies like 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) were generating a lot of buzz.
Bottom line? The industry has progressed rapidly and is on the cusp of going mainstream. Electronics retailers are preparing to clear space on store shelves for them, former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson has predicted that 3D printing will be “bigger than the web” and NewScientist proclaims that 3D printing heralds a second industrial revolution.
Nokia (NYSE:NOK) is already offering Lumia 820 owners plans to 3D print their own cases for the smartphone — a move that has to send shivers down the collective spine of consumer electronics accessories makers. Mobile phone accessories like protective cases and covers made for a $36 billion industry in 2012. What happens when 3D printers are as common as inkjet printers in homes and anyone can just print their own?
Toss in websites like Thingverse, which act as a public library of digital blueprints for 3D printer, and the situation gets even more worrisome. People are trading plans for 3D printable objects — including replacement parts for home appliances, toys and even adapters that let incompatible objects be used together. (The classic example of this is a 3D adapter that lets LEGO bricks be used with wooden Brio train sets.)
To ratchet anxiety up another notch, Makerbot just announced a desktop 3D scanner. This device uses lasers to scan an object in three dimensions; a 3D printer can then make an exact duplicate … no digital blueprint required. It’s the physical object equivalent of photocopying.
For any company that manufactures … well … anything, the 3D-printer progression from industrial-grade equipment to do-it-yourself hobbyist kit to mass-production model aimed at home use is disconcerting to say the least.
On top of that, the government is also waking up to the potential for disruption. Recently, digital plans were released that give a home 3D printer the ability to print a working AR-15 assault rifle with high capacity ammo magazine.
It’s almost no wonder that there is a push to do something about 3D printing before its too late. Intellectual Ventures, a notorious patent investment company, made news late last year after being granted a patent that prevents the printing of unauthorized 3D objects — in other words, putting digital rights management on 3D printers and digital plans.
Wired also wrote about Games Workshop, a UK gaming company that took legal action against a Thingverse-hosted blueprint for 3D figurines that could be used with its Warhammer game. Takedown notices based on copyright claims are increasing against websites that allow people to share 3D designs.
On top of that, with the prospect of widespread adoption — and the resulting increased competition — the industry has even begun turning on itself. 3D Systems filed suit against a Kickstarted Formlabs 3D printer, claiming the MIT-backed device violates its 3D printing patents dating back to 1997.
The legal consensus at this point seems to be that 3D printing is currently governed by patent law, rather than the copyright law that covers music and movies. This is less restrictive, which is exactly what manufacturers of physical products don’t want. Thus, they’re likely to push for tougher regulation.
And as 3D printers begin to show up in homes, 2013 could be the year that “3D printing sparks a patent law Armageddon.”
If that happens, the “maker” revolution may be over before it goes mainstream … and at the very least, it will be delayed and quite likely neutered.As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.