The Threat of 3D Printing

Wednesday, 03 October 2012   |   Creative Thinking

Robot ArmThere is an exciting new technology emerging at the moment which is 3D printing.  If you haven't heard about it before,  think of it as being similar to your typical laser printer but instead of printing ink it is printing in another material such as plastic, ceramic or metal, and instead of printing to a piece of paper, it is printing in layers to produce a physical object.  There are several people making them at the moment such as Makerbot and RepRap.  They are going to shake up the world and I think it can go down either of two distinct paths.

At the moment these devices are expensive, clunky and can typically only produce small items of limited accuracy.  Like any technology with as much potential as this, this is rapidly changing.  I think they will very quickly come down in price, become much easier to use and improve dramatically in terms of size, quality and number of materials they can work with.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, this is going to have some huge impacts on our world as we know it.

Imagine a world where you can easily and cheaply 3D print any item or component you like.  Where you can design these things yourself, however you like, or just as easily download a design from massive libraries of designs off the internet.  Your washing machine breaks,  no worries, just identify the part that broke, print a new one and install it yourself.  Have an idea for a funky new widget.  Sketch it up and a short while later you have yourself a real life version of your idea.  Not only that but you can upload it and share it with anyone else who might also like it.

But imagine the huge consequences this is going to have.

Path 1

This is the path I hope we go down.  Industry will be massively shaken.  A lot of manufacturing is made redundant but in it's place arises a huge creative market.  Websites spring up allowing people to easily share their designs.  Most are shared for free, some people sell their designs (usually for a nominal fee, similar to app stores today).  Quality of life is improved and more people are encouraged and enabled to be creative.  Virtually anything they can think of, they can create.  Other businesses are also creative and adapt to this new world.  Supermarkets for instance start packaging food in plastic that can easily be fed into these devices and used to print new stuff.  It is the ultimate in recycling.

The pace of innovation and creativity increases and everyone benefits.

Path 2

This is the path I hope we don't go down but that I feel we very well might.  Big industry foresees that this will be a huge threat to their long term viability.  Similar to the music industry today, they start lobbying heavily to have laws implemented restricting their use.  They put fear into people's heads.  These devices could be used by terrorists in malicious ways.  Criminals could print guns and other weapons with them.  Kids could make all manner of things they shouldn't with them.  Inevitably, someone does create something evil with one of these devices. Governments everywhere fall in line and enact laws heavily restricting their use.  You now need a license to own one, and legally they must have restrictions on them that only allow them to print designs approved by the government.  The threat is averted and large corporations breathe a sigh of relief.  We have lost a huge opportunity to be creative but they have saved their outdated business models and may continue to earn huge profits.


3D printing, when it matures, will be such a groundbreaking change to society.  Like we have seen in the entertainment industry, big players who stand to lose a lot with this change will fight it vigourously.  If they win then it will be society as a whole that has missed out on a huge potential gain.  We cannot let this happen just so that a few wealthy people can remain wealthy.  When they start to plot and scheme, it is essential that we push back.  Just like the internet fought back against SOPA, I fear we will soon have to do similar to protect 3D printing.


You're on your way to becoming a Highly Creative Person.