Three-dimensional (3-D) printing is one of the current darlings of the next-gen technology world. Besides its futuristic appeal, the growing popularity of 3-D printing is changing the ways manufacturers think about product design and delivery, and the way consumers think about shopping. One of 3-D printing's strongest appeals from the consumer side is its potential for limitless customization and open source file sharing. But these selling points also hold some serious risks for manufacturers and designers. The big question is: Is open source 3-D printing still worth it?
"The risk [of open source 3-D printing] is that people will fringe upon IT patents, and they can easily replicate any product," said Jeremiah Owyang, industry analyst and customer strategy partner at San Mateo, Cal.-based Altimeter Group. "I do believe that this is unstoppable. This is just like when media was democratized with Napster and peer-sharing. Now it's happening to consumer goods."
Three-dimensionally printed knockoffs of patented products may be unavoidable for the foreseeable future, but not all companies are taking intellectual property theft lying down. A recent example is video game company Square Enix, which issued a cease-and-desist order against a digital artist who was selling unauthorized 3-D-printed action figures of some of the company's licensed characters.
"This is the early, handwringing stages of the 3-D printing market," said Bob Parker, group vice president at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC Manufacturing Insights. "Right now, it's very murky [around intellectual property theft]. Certainly, manufacturers are concerned about their [intellectual property], but you have to keep it in scope. The range of things you can 3-D-print is still limited based on dimensions and materials available."
Open source 3-D printing's liability question
Liability is also a significant risk faced by manufacturers and designers, according to Owyang. "Let's imagine I printed out a bumper for my car and then got in a fatal car wreck," he said. "I didn't create that file -- I downloaded it. So who's liable? We don't know."
Another example of this liability issue comes from national news, when the U.S. government pulled 3-D printed gun designs that had sprung up online. When it comes to the internet, however, nothing ever really goes away. "That file was heavily downloaded. It's already out there," Owyang said. If the government can't stop this file sharing, private manufacturers stand little chance.
Parker recommends that manufacturers look into whether their product liability insurance would cover issues arising from 3-D-printed products. "If you're making a file available that allows people to modify a design, you could be held liable. It's just a fact," he said.
So far, there hasn't been any real effort by manufacturers to find ways to combat patent infringement or potentially unsafe product customizations, according to Owyang. In order for that to happen, companies will need to be disrupted in a way that forces them to action. "Who's going to be disrupted first? Toy manufacturers," he predicted. "But they haven't felt the pain yet."
Pete Basiliere, research director in the Technology and Service Provider organization at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Research, has also seen very little activity around creating universal file-usage guidelines. "There are standard file formats for output from CAD software to printers, and all of the major manufacturers of 3-D printers enable the acceptance of these formats, so that's not an issue," he said. However, he added, there has not been any concerted effort to make these formats virus- or hacker-proof -- most likely because, due to the newness of 3-D printing, there have not been any huge issues around file safety as yet.
The possibilities of open source 3-D printing
Owyang stresses that, despite the potential risks, open source 3-D printing doesn't have to spell doom and gloom for manufacturers. In fact, a savvy company can find a way to make money off of open source 3-D printing, much like Apple did off of media file sharing with iTunes. "[Three-dimensional] printer makers will definitely win, as will whoever builds the iTunes for STL [stereolithography] CAD files," he said. Owyang also pointed out that this is no far future reality -- in fact, open source STL directories already exist online.
One example of such a directory is Shapeways, an online 3-D printing marketplace and file-sharing repository where individual designers can make, design and sell their files and products. Designers can open a shop on the site and post in the community forums for advice from or collaboration with other designers. "That's a business model that is already working," Owyang said.
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Another online directory is Thingiverse, which is run by 3-D printer company MakerBot. Here, users can both upload and download STL files, as well as download design apps and entire custom STL file-design contests.
Designers that upload their STL files into these directories must be comfortable with the possibility that end users will alter or otherwise customize their designs to suit their own purposes, Basiliere noted. "Consumers will want to take a base creation and tweak it to their requirements," he said. "That's a logical extension of making the file available.
On the green-manufacturing side of things, there is a real waste-reduction upside to open source 3-D printing, Owyang explained. "There's a lot of opportunity to create products at a local level with recycled materials, and you only print what you need," he said. "When you're down with it, you can recycle it."
Open source 3-D printing also has the potential to bring aid to struggling, isolated communities, according to Owyang. "One 3-D printer in a rural, poor area could radically change that landscape," he said. A 3-D printer in a Third World village could bring basic survival products to residents faster than any world-aid organization ever could. "It's important that we think just beyond the First World," Owyang said.
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