Economist: Difference Engine: The PC all over again?
WHAT could well be the next great technological disruption is fermenting
away, out of sight, in small workshops, college labs, garages and
basements. Tinkerers with machines that turn binary digits into
molecules are pioneering a whole new way of making things—one that could
well rewrite the rules of manufacturing in much the same way as the PC
trashed the traditional world of computing.
The machines, called 3D printers, have existed in industry for years. But at a cost of $100,000 to $1m, few individuals could ever afford one. Fortunately, like everything digital, their price has fallen. So much so, industrial 3D printers can now be had for $15,000, and home versions for little more than $1,000 (or half that in kit form). “In many ways, today’s 3D printing community resembles the personal computing community of the early 1990s,” says Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at Public Knowledge, an advocacy group in Washington, DC.
As an expert on intellectual property, Mr Weinberg has produced a white paper that documents the likely course of 3D-printing's development—and how the technology could be affected by patent and copyright law. He is far from sanguine about its prospects. His main fear is that the fledgling technology could have its wings clipped by traditional manufacturers, who will doubtless view it as a threat to their livelihoods, and do all in their powers to nobble it. Because of a 3D printer's ability to make perfect replicas, they will probably try to brand it a piracy machine. ...
... The first thing to know about 3D printing is that it is an “additive”,
rather than a “subtractive”, form of processing. The tools are
effectively modified ink-jet printers that deposit successive layers of
material until a three-dimensional object is built up. In doing so, they
typically use a tenth of the material needed when machining a part from
bulk. The goop used for printing can be a thermoplastic such as
acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polylactic acid or polycarbonate,
or metallic powders, clays and even living cells depending on the
application (see “Making it”, November 25th 2011).
As far as intellectual property is concerned, the 3D printer itself is not the problem. But before it can start making anything, it needs a CAD (computer-aided design) file of the object to be produced, along with specialised software to tell the printer how to lay down the successive layers of material. The object can be designed on a computer using CAD software, or files of standard objects can be downloaded from open-source archives such as Thingiverse and Fab@Home. Most likely, though, the object to be produced is copied from an existing one, using a scanner that records the three-dimensional measurements from various angles and turns the data into a CAD file.
This is where claims of infringement start—especially if the item being scanned by the machine’s laser beam is a proprietary design belonging to someone else. And unless the object is in the public domain, copyright law could well apply. This has caught out a number of unwitting users of 3D printers who have blithely made reproductions of popular merchandise. ...
... As with any disruptive technology—from the printing press to the
photocopier and the personal computer—3D printing is going to upset
existing manufacturers, who are bound to see it as a threat to their
traditional way of doing business. And as 3D printing proliferates, the
incumbents will almost certainly demand protection from upstarts with
low cost of entry to their markets.
Manufacturers are likely to behave much like the record industry did when its own business model—based on selling pricey CD albums that few music fans wanted instead of cheap single tracks they craved—came under attack from file-swapping technology and MP3 software. The manufacturers' most likely recourse will be to embrace copyright, rather than patent, law, because many of their patents will have expired. Patents apply for only 20 years while copyright continues for 70 years after the creator's death. ...