3D Printing, IP, Supply Chains and the Environment

I know the title sets up for a long and potentially arduous and probably cumbersome discussion, but I’m not planning on tackling everything here…just some food for thought and discussion.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really excited about the idea of 3D printing.  While I can’t expect to say “Tea, Earl Grey, hot” and expect such a cup to be ready for me quickly, I like the idea of being able to print something useful when needed.  If nothing else it seems like a great toy – though I fully understand it is far beyond that stage already.  Reading this Wired article about Solidoodle makes me understand how far it has come – as $500 personal 3D printers are here!  My first two thoughts were 1) what is this going to do to global supply chains for basic, reusable products and 2) what are the Intellectual Property (IP), patent and trademark issues when someone takes an image off the web and prints it?

Let’s start with the second question.  We have seen vigorous defenses of copyrights for entertainment titles – music and movies for instance – against groups that would otherwise circumnavigate those copyrights.  And these battles have been fought in a variety of different settings in which titles might be replicated, duplicated, shared and backed up.  What happens with 3D printing will be very interesting to see.  In the Solidoodle (I just love that name!) article they discuss a 3D Yoda model that they printed.  What does Lucasfilm think of this, I wonder?  In a more mundane question, is the bottle opener they print in 15 minutes using $.15 worth of material something of their own design or did they copy it from something they purchased?  I see lawyers having a field day in the 3D printing realm – if they could just know each individual who actually printed something that came from someone else’s IP.

Knowing our litigious society I think the following scenario might even play out.  Since the means to know who downloaded what is something that can be tracked today, perhaps 3D printing applications will need to do this and report back.  Or if just downloading isn’t considered an issue, perhaps the $500 printer may need an additional piece of software that shares information about anything it prints to an IP database someplace.  The image can be compared to images of known copyrighted, patented or trademarked work and then the users of such technology can be billed for the use of the IP.  I feel slimy just thinking about this, but it strikes me that there will be a huge battle in this arena in the not too distant future.  For a good, less sinister read on this whole area try 3D Printing and Intellectual Property by Max Maheu.

The other thing that strikes me is that, extrapolated out many years and surviving IP battles, I could see supply chains for mundane replicable goods being replaced by supply chains for 3D printer supplies.  You need to replace your bottle opener?  Just print it.  If you run out of your filament printing stock, just order it.  You don’t have a printer, go to the local library and create it there.  What this means is the extended supply chains for any replicable goods may shrink significantly.  Your home office will become a mini-manufacturing plant for mundane items and the costs – if the $.15 bottle opener is any indication – will be relatively low.

If the extended supply chain for these products from China and various developing nations significantly contracts, those production resources will be freed up to focus on other more complex products.  In many ways this seems to be a good thing as it will bring efficiency to manufacturing replicable items (and perhaps more complex things down the road), reduce environmental costs associated with transportation of all those products, and help focus factories on what could be more high margin products.

Still, on the environmental front, you have to ship the filament so there is transportation costs to that. Thus, it might be appropriate to ask where the filament is created and shipped from.  Also, we might ask about the non-supply chain environmental impact of these 3D printers and their filaments.  What is the makeup of the filament used in this production process and what are the up front and long-term environmental and human consequences of these types of materials and the products made from them?  And, as Joris Peels ponders, will the availability of cheap, quickly printed goods lead to a preponderance of “Impulse 3D print” where products become throw-away items and thus create considerable waste?

I am excited about the technology but cautiously optimistic about the environmental aspects.  Regarding supply chains, I think local production for appropriate products can be a very useful thing, reduce dependence on foreign manufacturing and brittle supply chains, and perhaps spur new ideas – and products – like we’ve never seen before as consumers become their own designers and entrepreneurs as they try print and hone their own ideas.  And this latter idea – the use of 3D for creativity not just for replication – is the thing that  I think holds the most promise from this new technology.  I am hopeful.