Monday, January 30, 2012

3D Printing - Society Changer, or Battleground of Entrenched Interests?

I've been picking up little bits on 3D printing over the past few months, but have never really delved into the topic.

Jake Kuramoto mentioned 3D printing back in July 2011, and subsquently identified it as one of the things he wants to watch in 2012.

And Steven Hodson wrote about it in December 2011.

Again, I didn't really look into it, just kinda thinking: "Oh. Multi-dimensional creation of stuff. Cool."

But others are seeing some potential in it. When I referred Jesse Stay to my post on American workers not being willing to accept Chinese manufacturing practices, Jesse countered with a reference to one of his recent posts on manufacturing. And when he referred me, he made the following statement: 10 years, manufacturing jobs won't exist at all.

Well, naturally I had to read Jesse's post to see how he came up with this conclusion. Here's an excerpt:

I predict, in the not too distant future, not only will you be able to shop, buy, and order phones, devices, and gadgets online (most likely through a mobile device if current trends have their way), but you'll also be able to print those devices out, right in your home, just like you do a piece of paper right now. That's right - the future of manufacturing exists in the homes of every single American, and every person in the world. We won't need those offshore factories in the future! It's an industry that, just like the automotive industry, just like just about any mechanical, human-powered industry, is quickly being replaced by computers!

Stay provided a specific example:

Imagine a world where Apple, like their current factories, made beautiful 3D printers that created their devices in the homes of every customer, instead of building expensive factories in China. Imagine if Apple could reduce that cost, and give complete, full control to the manufacturing process of their phones in the homes of their customers. What if they put one of these in each Apple Store for customers that couldn't buy their own 3D printers?

Now I don't know if Apple would ever do something like this, but I do have to admit the possibility that Apple, notorious for control, may decide that it is in its best interest to outsource production to its own customers. (Assuming, of course, that the technology progresses to the level that it could produce an Apple product.)

But if companies can allow customers to produce AUTHORIZED versions of their products via this technology, then the same technology can be used to...I think you know where this is going. Steven Hodson certainly does:

[W]e hear that The Pirate Bay is opening a new section on their site that will let you download digital files that can be used with 3D printers to create physical goods.

Yes, the Pirate Bay. Some content owners are already mad at the Pirate Bay because it is capable of hosting movies and music. What happens when the Pirate Bay starts hosting virtual versions of other physical products? Hodson explains:

As we as a society struggle to deal with the copyright and trademark fights we are already fighting with the entertainment industry just imagine the battles and political repercussions that we will face when you or I can download a data file, feed it into our personal 3D printer, and within minutes have the same product that a major corporation was trying to sell us a few years ago.

When I read Hodson's post, I immediately conceived my own "for example." Allow me to elaborate.

Recently in my home country, the Federal government spent billions of dollars assisting two companies, General Motors and Chrysler. These two companies are at the top of a large ecosystem of many, many companies who supply parts to them. The Federal government decided that if these two companies were to fail, the repercussions throughout the economy would be catastrophic. And, to put it in terms politicians can understand, a lot of U.S. Representatives, Senators, and even a President could lose future elections unless these two companies were saved.

So General Motors and Chrysler were bailed out, catastrophe was averted, and everyone is happy. Well, almost everyone. But there are a number of politicians from both parties, and a number of company officials, and a number of labor union officials, who are pleased as punch about the healthy American automobile industry.

That is, until some "rogue" Swedish website allows customers to download "illegal" automotive parts, bypassing all of the companies that the Federal government just spent billions of dollars to save.

At that point, Christopher Dodd will stand up and say, "I told you so," and Lamar Smith (or someone like him) will draft legislation to protect our country's economy from rogue foreign websites selling illegal goods and costing us billions of dollars. What the heck - trillions of dollars.

How will it be constructed? Will the sale of 3D printers be regulated? Will the Department of Commerce be required to put tracking devices on 3D printers? Will there be a "patent tax" to ensure that "legitimate" manufacturers get their fair share of "rogue" sales?

Granted that there may be a few years before we have to worry about this in earnest, but it will still be interesting to watch.
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