Before I get ahead of myself though, let’s first consider how this revolutionary technology works. A computer-aided design (CAD) model (in other words, a blueprint) is developed, loaded onto a computer, sent to print and voila — your object gets built — one layer at a time. The layers can be developed in much the same way a laser printer works in that a thin layer of powder gets distributed onto the base in accordance with the blueprint specifications, the powder is bound together by heat or by way of a binding agent and a new layer is added until the desired object is complete. Alternatively, the building material can be a solid (i.e. plastic or metal) that is heated, melted, and then cooled as each layer is built.
Materials currently being used to print in three dimensions include metals, polymers, ceramics, and composite — though I have to wonder if some day we might be able to successfully commercialize the printing of food or even tissue? It’s hard not to be diverted by the possibilities of 3-D printing. It certainly sounds very futuristic, and yet this form of manufacturing was actually in development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (so they claim) at least two decades ago. Where it goes from here of course, is hard to say.
Assuming it ever becomes mainstream, 3-D printing is sure to be disruptive — but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And while it will undoubtedly have an impact on traditional forms of manufacturing because fewer workers will be required to operate the equipment, there are some positive benefits that we could also see. Consider the environment for instance. From reducing the carbon footprint made by traditional manufacturing to reusing recycled materials, in theory at least, your next laptop could be built by a printer that costs about $3,000 (unless you build it yourself, which apparently you can for all of about $250) using entirely recycled materials.
Consider the traditional barriers to entry for a startup looking to manufacture its own consumer or commercial products. If the end product can be produced inexpensively (relatively speaking) and in small numbers, prototypes could be beta-tested and blueprints tweaked endlessly to keep up with consumer and market demand. Scalability may or may not be an issue, but it is early days yet.
This might be a stretch — but if you can print a ball bearing — why wouldn’t you be able to print a skin graft for a burn victim or build a new liver for transplant? Surely if we are developing blood substitutes, we can figure out how to develop a 3-D skin graft and build organs. Indeed, it appears that researchers in Australia did just that last year by developing what they called “3-D replacement skin” which combines “stem cells with synthetic materials like collagen, elastin and other products.” Earlier still, scientists at the Medical University of South Carolina were developing “organ printing” technology, which they defined as being a “computer-aided, jet-based 3-D tissue-engineering of living human organs.” Maybe anything really is possible.
Given the breadth of opportunity 3-D printing presents, one can well imagine the legal ramifications — in particular with respect to intellectual property. 3-D printing is done by way of digital files, so the risk of piracy is ever present. Can the files be sufficiently secured so they can’t be reverse engineered, copied, modified, or otherwise? Good luck with that. As we have seen with peer-to-peer music and movie sharing, copying, and distributing (even to a network of friends in the real world), enforcement and protection are very expensive and it is extremely difficult to identify individual pirates, let alone put a stop to all means and forms of piracy. Add to that open source software and hardware (i.e. rights and title) and regulatory concerns (i.e. if tissue, medicines, and food are produced), and the legal implications become even broader and more complex.
This isn’t to say that it won’t be possible to sue and successfully recover damages. In fact, it has been suggested that patent holders could take a similar approach to copyright owners — in this case by suing the manufacturers of the printers and the (re)sellers of CAD blueprints on the basis of contributory infringement. How existing intellectual property and other laws will ultimately be asserted and applied to 3-D printing though has yet to be seen.
As a last thought, I question how this technology might affect the developing world. Apparently food can actually be printed, indeed even medicine can be printed onto a pill (or in the future possibly some other printed delivery means?), so someday we should be able to provide printers (that can produce their own replacement parts) to developing nations so people everywhere can have access to water, food, and medicine, right? Idealistic? Absolutely. Unrealistic? Not necessarily. Impossible? Don’t be silly — we landed on the moon didn’t we?
Sarah Dale-Harris is corporate counsel at Accenture Inc. and can be reached at [email protected] or at 416-641-3151. If you a neophyte like me and are interested in watching a couple of videos to learn more about 3-D printing go to: publicknowledge.org/3d-printing-bits-atoms?z00m=19913481. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.