With the steady flood of news items related to 3D printing for consumers, for schools, for healthcare, and for businesses, it can be difficult to gain perspective on what it all means.
Earlier this year, John Hornick of the Finnegan IP (intellectual property) law firm summarized some of his own predictions in a new book entitled “3D Printing Will Rock the World.”
In the book’s 10 chapters, he presents specific examples of how 3D printing might:
- revolutionize manufacturing
- reinvent design
- make us all makers again
- bring jobs back to the U.S.
- disrupt “business-as-usual”
- create jobs we haven’t even thought of
- merge science and nature
- create new types of crimes
- threaten brand ownership of “genuine” products
- change the way our kids learn, work, and live
Throughout the book, he cites numerous examples of how industry observers and analysts have different answers to these types of questions:
Will every home have a 3D printer? Or will independent fabrication labs (“fabs”) or large corporations will 3D print most of what we want or need?
Will 3D printers replace mass production? Or will they be just one more machine on a factory floor? Will companies sell designs instead of products? Or will companies make mass-customized products or send designs to their own local factories for printing?
Will 3D printers create jobs or destroy them?
Hornick believes, “It’s entirely possible that all of this will happen and more.”
Before presenting some of his own visions for how 3D printing will change our world, Hornick summarizes existing technologies and potentially disruptive advances, such as HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology and the Composite-Based Additive Manufacturing process developed by Impossible Objects . He also talks about some of the advanced materials being developed that will make it possible to 3D print items as diverse as human organs, medicines, electronics, buildings, weapons, home goods, and machine parts.
When all this will come to fruition is anyone’s guess. Hornick agrees with an observation Bill Gates made in 2008 that we tend to overestimate what things can happen in two years, and underestimate what things will happen in ten. (Anyone who has followed forecasts for the adoption of digital printing technologies knows how true this statement is.)
This is a thought-provoking book if you are considering how your business might benefit from adding 3D printing as a service. Here are some points to keep in mind:
3D Printing vs. Additive Manufacturing: The term “3D printing” covers many different technologies and processes. While the first adopters of 3D printers still prefer terms such as “rapid prototyping” or “additive manufacturing,” the simpler term “3D printing” makes the concept much easier for everyone to visualize. That will help drive faster adoption.
Product Liability: Because 3D printing blurs the line between manufacturer, designer, and customer, it may not always be clear who is responsible for 3D-printed product safety and who will be liable for 3D printed product injuries.
As 3D printers become common in industry, schools, fab centers, and homes, they will create a worldwide spiderweb of design and manufacturing . The question “Is the product genuine?” will become harder to answer and possibly meaningless. Some faulty 3D-printed products will have been made by consumers or hobbyists, not by manufacturers.
Intellectual Property: The rise of 3D printing will also affect intellectual property laws. According to Hornick, “Current IP laws probably will be inadequate to address the challenges of 3D printing.” Even though IP rights-owners will petition legislators for new laws, anyone with a sophisticated 3D scanner will be able to copy a product and tweak the results. Many 3D printers will be used outside of control of the law.
He believes companies will transition to non-IP-rights based business models that will make printable files easily and cheaply so customers are encouraged to buy the files instead of stealing the designs.
Innovation in Design: 3D printers will allow us to make products and designs that look and feel very different from products used today. Just because a product is made from 20 to 25 materials today doesn’t mean it can’t be printed from 3 or 4 materials tomorrow.
Hornick believes that continuing advances in 3D printing could ultimately be as disruptive as other significant technological developments in human history. When humans first began using fire, the wheel, the steam engine, computers, and the Internet, no one really foresaw their full potential. We’re just beginning to imagine what might be possible with 3D printing.