The Upcoming Disruption: Affordable 3D Printers
For some time I’ve been of opinion that in the future it will not only be music, movies, books, images and software that will be essentially costless to copy, but real physical objects as well. I typically envision something akin to replicators that can be seen in science fiction worlds like Star Trek, using nano assemblers to assemble things on a molecular level. All you need is a raw material, which can theoretically be anything that the assemblers can conveniently extract necessary atoms from, and energy.
While nanotechnology is advancing at a rapid pace, nano-replicators are still ways out into the future. There is however one technology that can be seen as its very early prototype, at least conceptually. It doesn’t work on a molecular level, and is actually in comparison to replicators very crude, but it does promise to provide everyone the power to manufacture a wide variety of products within their homes, and quite easily too.
3D Printers – Converting Digital Models Into Physical Things
Of course, I’m talking about 3D printers, which use the extrusion process to print out objects with quite a great amount of precision, and the prices of which are very likely to fall in the coming years. A good recent example of an attempt to make 3D printers more affordable is the Makerbot, which is offered as a kit that you can put together yourself, and is offered for $1000 USD.
Another great example is Cube, which sells a complete personal 3D printer with a user-friendly design and operation. It is accompanied by an online Cubify service which offers existing models to be printed, but can also be used to order remote printing of objects and their delivery to those who don’t have a 3D printer yet. Cube is a sign of things to come, making it easy, and relatively cheap for anyone to turn digital models of objects into real objects themselves.
An older and cheaper example is RepRap which can be built for around 500 euros. What is peculiar about RepRap is that it is a self-replicating 3D printer, which means that it can largely create its own parts, so if you have a RepRap you can use it to manufacture components necessary to build another RepRap and so on. Furthermore, RepRap design as well as the software necessary to operate it is open source. This gives it tremendous potential for advancement in sophistication and reducing costs as it continues evolving.
The ideas behind RepRap are rather interesting and ambitious as well. Its founder thinks of it in terms of evolution. RepRap essentially reproduces itself and therefore spreads its “specie” across the world, and since it is open source and anyone can modify the design as they replicate new RepRaps there is space for mutation which could lead to ever improving versions of RepRap.
Their slogan is, whatever you may think of it, “wealth without money” which makes some sense if you think of it within the context of the device allowing you to make things without needing money to buy them. Of course, though, the raw material (plastic) still has to come from somewhere.
3D printers like RepRap, Makerbot, Cube, and indeed more expensive industrial variants that have been around for decades, essentially convert computer 3D models into real live objects. This is where their tremendous potential lies. It essentially bridges the gap between virtual and real in a very meaningful way. It means that almost anything you can design with a computer you can turn into an actual physical object that you can hold in your hand and use for its intended purpose.
A more widespread proliferation of 3D printing may therefore threaten to put some of the existing manufacturing industry out of business, or to put it in on a more positive note, make the barrier of entry so low that everyone can participate. If you can just print it at home, you don’t have to buy it.
Since you can also customize what you are printing or create entirely new designs you can become a manufacturer of your very own unique items. This gives you a similar kind of power that software programmers have, except what you’re programming are actual physical objects.
Copying Existing Physical Objects vs. “Intellectual Property”
What is perhaps going to be most disruptive is the possibility of copying existing physical objects with 3D printing. You could use any camera to take pictures of an object from multiple sides and then have a computer turn this into a 3D model that can be printed. Some 3D printers may come with a special 3D camera made for exactly this purpose. This comes dangerously close to the ease with which you can copy digital works, and is essentially the first step towards a kind of digitization of the entire physical world.
Just imagine; the same laws that operate in the cyberspace become applicable in the physical space. Everything that can fit into a stove can be copiable, and larger things can be replicated by means of copying its components and assembling them, all possible within your home and within an average budget. Manufacturing was never that decentralized. Think of the implications this could have on the ongoing “intellectual property” battles.
We are already in the midst of the “intellectual property” wars fought between the industries built in the time when music, movies and other artistic and intellectual works came only in rigid physical form. If you wanted to get some music you bought disks or cassettes. If you wanted to buy a book you bought a physical book, what we today call a “dead tree” version. You seldom thought of the music you heard or words you read as something separate from the medium it was carried in, and all was good. Intellectual works were sold as physical products, and copying these physical products was too difficult to be worth it.
Intellectual works cannot exist without physical objects
It is worth noting that this has technically not really changed today. Intellectual works simply cannot and do not exist without a physical medium. The text you are reading right now doesn’t exist by itself. Either it is just an arrangement of nano-holes on some hard drive in some data center or electrical signals in your brain. Without the disk, or a brain, this article cannot exist. Intellectual works need a physical medium through which they can manifest themselves.
What has changed is the efficiency of “reprinting” these physical media. Microscopic machines drill those nanoscopic holes into their place at a pace that would certainly have your head spin. Within seconds you can copy an entire music file. Within minutes you can copy an entire high definition movie. Keep in mind, again, that it is not so much the movie itself which was copied as much as the physical properties between physical media (those nano-holes), properties which signal to the computer how to arrange the lighting of pixels on your screen so they produce the images you see.
Picture two hard drives at work when something is being copied from one to the other. The process is nothing but a process of replication. If you were to view under a microscope the precise sections of the disk from which the data is copied, and the sections of the disk to which it is copied, you would see that what is going on is a duplication of an arrangement of physical holes or some other physical arrangement.
The ability of machines to so quickly, efficiently and conveniently “reprint” the intellectual works in this manner spurted rampant copying of music people bought, and needless to say, sharing of that music. The industry lost its monopoly on copying and publishing, and they could not (or would not) cope with this. Instead of adapting to the new situation they tried to criminalize their competition: their own customers, and instilled this idea that sharing what you already own is a crime and tantamount to “theft”, despite the fact that the original copies are never lost to them. There is, of course, a growing movement of people who recognize the industry folly and call for them to adapt to the new reality.
3D printing will expand and expose the problem of “intellectual property”
3D printers are to physical products what computers and hard drives are to music, movies and books. Just as computers allowed a tremendous rise in efficiency, speed and convenience of replicating and creating intellectual works (now consequently often known as “digital works”) 3D printers could allow the same for actual physical objects. This puts much of the manufacturing industry in the same position in which the entertainment industry was during the emergence of the digital revolution.
It also considerably extends the “intellectual property” war to designs of physical objects. We already see companies suing each other over similarities between the designs of their products, claiming patent violations. With 3D printers, it is not just big manufacturing companies that could infringe on such patents, it is everyone, and it could rampantly happen without the infringers even being aware of it.
Similar situation already exists with regards to software patents. Any programmer can unwittingly infringe on someone’s patent without even being aware of it, just by coming up with a similar programming solution. When the barriers to entry are so low that anyone can participate everyone is a potential innovator. Ideas and innovations come out from multiple sources simultaneously. In such a situation patents become a burden on innovation, if they ever were good for it.
As technology advances the concept of “intellectual property” becomes increasingly indefensible and harmful. Keeping it up will necessitate even more oversight and regulation of individual’s behavior in order to catch and punish “intellectual property” violations. Acts as simple as taking a photo might end up regulated to prevent someone using the photo to make an unauthorized copy of an object being photographed.
In addition to becoming increasingly impractical and Orwellian when enforced in an increasingly digitized world the concept of “intellectual property” comes into conflict with real physical property rights. Since intellectual works cannot exist without a physical medium all “intellectual property” regulation comes down to regulating the uses of physical property.
If, under some kind of an intellectual property regime, one was denied to use an object as his own just because it happens to look the same as some other object, it would be a clear violation of his actual physical property rights. This leads to a situation where one has to make a choice between respecting fictitious “intellectual property” rights or actual real tangible property rights.
Many may choose the former, but I think even more, as they see the issue materialize in front of their eyes the way it never did before, may choose the latter. 3D printers and similar technologies will literally illustrate embedded contradictions within the “intellectual property” dogma, where it will be absolutely clear that “copying” is not “stealing”, and that only a direct contractual relationship that binds one not to copy can make any specific act of copying wrong. To copy in such an instance isn’t so much a matter of copyright violation, however, but contract violation, and it is not so much theft as it is fraud.
In a world increasingly ran by information, expanded by the power to transform information into physical counterparts, the outdated and self-contradictory concept of “intellectual property” and associated regimes may be found increasingly hard to maintain. Meanwhile, the potential opened by nearly universal access to manufacturing capabilities seems poised to lead to an explosion of innovation, creativity and perhaps even greater prosperity and abundance, perhaps ultimately leading to radical reduction of scarcity as seen in Star Trek.
Money, I argue, would still exist though, for the simple reason that trade requires a medium of exchange, even if items exchanged are abundant and their price so low that it borders on free. A lot of money may still be turned over such things as building space ships, space stations and services like space tourism trips, but most importantly on the development of entirely new ideas and technologies.