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The Many Dimensions Of 3D Printing

FYI | Aug 11 2021

The growth in use of 3D printers across the community offers immense potential, but there’s also a need for that potential to be carefully managed

-3D printers will continue to grow in popularity as their capabilities increase and prices drop
-Such growth will test longstanding norms surrounding Intellectual Property
-A universal use of 3D printers has the potential to benefit the community, but also facilitate new challenges to public safety

By Ed Kennedy

For a brief time earlier this century it appeared 3D printing was on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

3D printing held the promise of being a ‘missing link’ that’d make selling goods to consumers effortless.

Gone would be the factories and couriers, and in their place would be the chance for a consumer to buy goods online direct from a creator, and then download the digital file for the item ready to print in their own home or workplace.

Suffice to say this utopian vision didn’t come to pass.

But a look beyond the initial hype with a more nuanced view of the industry affirms 3D printing does have staying power.

This said, a contemporary view suggests substantial challenges are set to accompany any mass uptake and use of 3D printers in future – and these issues are too immense to be ignored.

The Difference Between 3D Printing and Additive Manufacture

At the outset it’s necessary to note the differences that exist between 3D printing and the related field of additive manufacturing.

Just as there’s considerable overlap – with the terms often used interchangeably – there are indeed distinctions between the two, as discussed in FNArena’s previous piece Crafting A Future For Additive Manufacturing (link at bottom of story).

For anyone seeking to better understand the nuance between the two fields, a read of this previous piece will assist, but in a nutshell it can be said that AM typically describes more sophisticated technology and processes, whereas 3D printing is more often used to describe tech and processes that are more affordable and accessible to all comers.

The previous piece focused on where AM processes are utilised in large-scale ventures, with a particular reference towards its commercial dynamics, and competition surrounding AM within the global economy.

By contrast, the following is focusing on the existing issues surrounding 3D printing and the protection of Intellectual Property (IP) when it concerns (mainly, though not always exclusively) the amateur or hobbyist user, in a future where 3D printers could become widely used.

Additionally, the impact of a decentralisation of the technology, and the implications of this trend. Finally, where 3D printing may serve to be a ‘game changer’ in the real estate sector.

The Rise and Fall – and Rise Again? – of 3D Printing

In existence since the 1980s, interest in 3D printing had its first boom in this decade where cassette players and ashtrays were still commonplace in vehicles.

This rise in interest, however, is held to largely have been rather niche, essentially confined to the industries which had a keen interest in the opportunities 3D printing could provide – what most would today regard as being more akin to AM than 3D printing per the aforementioned definitions of each field.

But then in the late 2000s the industry saw another huge surge in interest. Lower prices for entry-level printers gave rise to predictions 3D printers would become the new ‘default’ accessory of business and residential settings – this generation’s microwave oven – which proved to be premature at best.

But even if the emergence of low-cost 3D printers did not result in their immediate uptake in billions of households, the reality is any sudden surge of ownership would doubtless have generated more attention surrounding the opportunities and issues that exist in an arena where 3D printers find their way into regular use by the masses.

In this circumstance, a gradual growth and usage of 3D printers by anyone and everyone across the community means drawing sufficient attention towards the public discussion about the pros and cons of this phenomenon is far harder – and this reality should make all uneasy.

IP and 3D Printing

A key issue for the contemporary 3D printing landscape surrounds Intellectual Property (IP) rights.

Complex challenges and debates surrounding digital IP are certainly not confined to 3D printing. The battles seen since internet speeds made it technologically easy to share digital music for free online – famously illustrated in the case of heavy metal band Metallica versus file-sharing service Napster in 2000 – evidences this.

Yet the nature of IP in 3D printing affirms it represents a new dynamic, and a contrast with digital music shows this.

A cursory glance of one person’s music player – today most commonly a smartphone – would likely make it a challenge to confirm whether music was downloaded legally or illegally.

And ultimately, while illegal downloads still exist, many streaming services have helped establish a product that offers subscribers lawful access to a huge library of songs for a small monthly subscription fee. This as opposed to having to pay $20 or $30 per album as was required in the pre-streaming era with compact discs.

As distinct from music, there’s theoretically the potential for an easier identification of 3D-printed stolen goods, given their digital origins ultimately provides an output of tangible goods that can be physically seen and held.

But a wider examination of this dynamic affirms it’d be a very difficult environment for those looking to protect IP. One where 3D printers could be utilised to print goods en masse that users do not hold the IP for, and due to the borderless nature of the internet it’d be profoundly difficult for anyone seeking to safeguard their IP to do so globally.

Numerous licensing libraries for 3D designs could indeed arise just as streaming services have for music, but just as illegal music downloads persist, so too would the market for counterfeit 3D-printed goods be expected to thrive.
Accordingly, the losses IP owners sustain as a result of this market’s worldwide emergence – given the huge variety of counterfeit goods which may find their way into being via a 3D printer – would surely far outpace the losses IP owners in the music industry have suffered in years prior due to illegal file sharing.

The financial barriers to owning a very sophisticated 3D printer would hinder some criminal activity. While an amateur may use a 3D printer that costs a few hundred or a few thousand, a machine for serious endeavours can cost over $100,000.

Yet it’s held counterfeit goods ultimately account for 3.3% of global trade. So although $100,000 is certainly not chump change to most, to an advanced counterfeit operation it would be a drop in the ocean.

Although laws already exist in some jurisdictions that place restrictions on what materials can be printed, this is indeed not uniform across the world – and thus it’s supremely difficult to address these issues in the global economy.

Furthermore, concerns surrounding a greater uptake of 3D printers are certainly not exclusive to the IP issue alone.

A Need to Ink New Rules

An unchecked ‘freedom to create’ presents current laws with emerging issues that are immensely confronting.

This is illustrated by a snapshot of just a couple of fields where allowing free reign in 3D printing by those who don’t have the sufficient skill and expertise (as well as lawful authority) to create, would generate huge problems.

Medical devices printed via the 3D process with inferior materials could appear identical to those made by a reputable and trusted manufacturer, but ultimately not provide the same quality when put to work.

This could endanger any patient who experiences their use, alongside giving rise to a host of legal issues for other stakeholders involved. In turn, there’s great anxiety across a number of jurisdictions surrounding the production of 3D-printed guns.

The legality of their production has operated in a grey area for many years in some locales. Yet the growing capabilities of weapon-making with 3D printing, with a number of AR-15s – an assault weapon which has tragically been utilised in multiple American mass shootings in recent times – having been printed by numerous gun users in recent years, affirms anywhere grey areas do continue to exist in law, they surely need to be rapidly clarified in black and white in the name of public safety.

Finding a New Domain for 3D Printing

One area where 3D printing holds great potential and widespread optimism alike is real estate.

As aforementioned, there is considerable overlap between additive manufacturing and 3D printing, and this is apparent within the property sector. But in both sophisticated and basic property pursuits, AM and 3D printing processes are winning real acclaim, and can be expected to hold a concrete place in construction going forward.

German manufacturer PERI Group began work late last year on the nation’s first 3D-printed apartment block. Situated in Wallenhausen, Bavaria, 5 apartments were set for construction with approximately 380 square metres of living space to be created. Furthermore, 3D-printed 75 square-metre homes have been produced overseas in years prior for less than US$4000.

Although the complexity of these machines means right now they’re out of reach of the average aspiring homebuilder, there’s no doubting the optimism that surrounds the possibility of greater utilisation of these printers going forward. In particular, 3D printing enthusiasts hold the tech could help significantly alleviate social housing shortages.

This is the case whether it be for Australians with a longstanding need – who could nonetheless be waiting years on the waitlist – or a household who due to a natural disaster such as a bushfire suddenly find they’ve a need, alongside countless others across their community.

In such a circumstance, 3D-printed structures could help to rapidly restore housing and other key amenities in a community ravaged by a natural disaster, helping families who’ve already encountered a traumatic life experience to retain social ties and closer proximity to their education and employment than they may otherwise be able to.

Additionally, on a more elemental level, it could become commonplace in future for DIY enthusiasts to deal with basic home repairs with a 3D printer.

The occasional utilisation of 3D printers by a typical household in years ahead to print a replacement table leg or door handle is certainly a more modest use than what dreamers envisioned in decades prior for 3D printers, but there’s the prospect such tasks will see 3D printers acquire real staying power, and accordingly become a device that does indeed find mass usage in households and businesses.

The Essential Materials for a New Era

3D printing can ultimately be seen as a successor to the first printing press. It offers an avenue to decentralise creativity and production. When viewed in this light exclusively, it is really not that different from the inkjet printer found in homes and offices across the world, and its capacity to produce content via printing paper that can be shared with, and sold, to others.

Technology that empowers people to more easily create goods in their homes and workplaces can undoubtedly be transformative, but also must come with some sufficient protections surrounding the creative work of others.

Copyright projections surrounding the written word have persisted alongside the rise of the household printer so as to ensure it remains the right of an author in association with a publishing house to produce and sell their own work, and not just anyone who wishes to, who has the technological means to do so.

For authorities, however hard it may be to do so, pursuing similar protections around 3D printing in future will be necessary not only to better protect IP, but also public safety from the dangers of faulty goods, weapons, and similar objects of concern.

In sum, the growth in use of 3D printers across the community offers immense potential, but there’s also a need for that potential to be carefully managed.

This so as to ensure the benefits that would accompany the greater use of 3D printers by all is not far outweighed by the profound threat it could pose to IP, and wider public safety.

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