I caught the last 2 minutes of Radio4′s Click On programme yesterday (series 7, ep2) and they were talking about the advent of affordable 3D Printers. I only caught a tiny bit of the discussion but it was enough to get my mind going.
3D printing is an area I’ve not bothered thinking about much, seeing it as a Design & Technology issue which is a specialised area I’m not familiar with.
The theme of the radio segment was how costs of this kind of solid object reproduction are tumbling to the point where soon they will be a consumer item.
And then what?
Manufacturing becomes a more accessible industry, they were suggesting, not something limited to organisations with large amounts of capital.
Where does that leave intellectual property around physical objects? They gave the example of a child wanting the latest lego model. Can’t afford it? Go online and see if anyone has pirated the schematics then “print off” your own one.
It was this bit about IPR that really got me. We’re talking more and more about an open culture when it comes to information; well, now objects and data are overlapping in the public domain in a way they haven’t before.
I really love the idea that there could be an open-source version of the Dyson vacuum cleaner. Plastics seem to be the easiest things to replicate at the moment but this article about the RepRap project suggests that electronic components are a possibility (see the RepRap homepage here). If the cleaner itself isn’t a possibility, then what about a hacking community devoted to designing specialised attachments for those hard-to-reach areas that you can print out at home? All Creative Commons licensed, of course.
Imagine printing off an open source laptop, then running Linux on it.
There would be some very interesting economic implications. Manufacturing would face similar issues in the future that are challenging the publishing industry now. As a trivial example, how would Lego differentiate itself from homemade, pirated equivalents? How would they protect their intellectual property? Go down the same, disastrous route as the music industry or something more enlightened?
Are there environmental considerations? Is it more ecological to produce lots of objects on a small scale as and when they are needed (a pull model, rather than push) as a opposed to large-scale manufacturing plants? Will we see warnings on schematics like we see on the bottom of emails nicely asking us not to print out this object unless you have to?
What really tickled me, though, was what the Daily Mail would make of the RepRap project. Imagine: a machine that can replicate itself! Robot monsters that will destroy us all! Run for the hills!
Image: Better Than Bacon – By NC ND – http://www.flickr.com/photos/slurm/1119404732/