Machines that can fabricate physical models on your desktop have come a long way in 25 years, and the implications of having Star-Trek-like replicators in the hands of individuals and small businesses within the next 25 years is starting to generate some excitement for previously unimaginable low volume and highly customized manufacturing. It's also giving some policy makers a serious case of the jitters.
In some respects, resistance to 3D printing is a re-run of fears that surfaced over the propagation of cheap, high-quality personal computers and digital color printers 20 years ago. Technology that fundamentally transforms our lives will always cause fear and face resistance. Here are four fears that threatened the recent 2D printing revolution, and how each resurfaces in a form that opposes their new 3D counterparts.
Counterfeiting currency has been referred to as "the world's second oldest profession", a curiosity when considering the oldest profession is not in minting actual money. In 1736, Benjamin Franklin provided anti-counterfeit innovations for New Jersey's colonial scrip which bore the phrase "to counterfeit is death," a threat upon which kings occasionally made good. When cheap, high-quality desktop publishing technology appeared 250 years later, companies manufacturing copiers or coding photo-editing software built pattern-recognition safeguards into their products to prevent currency counterfeiting. We all waited and paid for the extra design effort to deter criminals, but they can be a determined group with their hacking, patching, and whatnot. In 2009, a guy named Albert Talton was sent to prison for printing $7 million in counterfeit U.S. currency on standard ink-jet printers. Oddly enough, a printer won't counterfeit money by itself ... it needs the help of at least one bad guy.
In the 3D space, some criminals will instead focus on making forgeries of valuable objects like consumer goods and pharmaceutical tablets. Computers are not that good at pattern recognition, so they won't know to stop you from sending nameplates for fake handbags, yoga pants, or fake male-enhancement pills, to your printer. Even if pattern recognition technology improved, there would quickly be patches available to just disable it. Governments will enforce against commercial counterfeits, but to maintain the value of their brand, manufacturers can't rely on this. Innovators provide ways for their customers to identify forgeries on sight. Apple uses many innovative anti-counterfeiting measures, including nanotechnology. Once you know how that shimmering logo is etched into the aluminum case of an iPhone, you'll accept the reality that Joe Shmoe won't be building passable iPhone 5S knock-offs in his 3D aluminum printer, at least not until the iPhone 25S comes out.
The surface quality of food-grade parts will soon be at a level that could produce generic pharmaceuticals disguised as the popular name-brand version. Maybe the police will catch all the fraudsters, but a safer approach for the pharmaceutical companies and their customers is to step up their game on counterfeit-proof packaging. For pills valuable enough to fake, there is plenty of margin to support the added cost.
Copyright infringement, already being mass-committed with cassettes, CDs, and eventually DVD burners, was now complimented by authentic-looking color inserts and labels made on new high-quality 2D printers. If you scan your child's school portrait to make copies for Grandma and Aunt Marie Jean, you are probably infringing on the school photographer's copyright. The public got a crash course in intellectual property law and the term "fair use," even ensnaring a few kids unfortunate enough to be made examples of. The music distribution business, once based on the "printing" of plastic disks that old fogeys called "records", has been completely transformed by on-line digital music, so the fears were somewhat warranted. As the infamous practice of "payola" fades into memory, people just listen more to what they want, rather than the same 40 singles picked by some nameless suit posing in a skyscraper somewhere. Still alive and well are copyright infringement squabbles, such as one over the song "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen.
One appealing thing about 3D printing is that you don't need to have millions of people wanting an item to justify setting up a factory in China to build millions of units. If a customer's feet are extra-wide size 13 3/4, new shoemakers will size and print them a custom-fitted pair of cross trainers in about an hour. No longer will he need to squeeze into the mass-produced narrow size 13, just because there are not enough big-foots like him to stock every style and color shoe in the 13 3/4 size across the malls of America. From prosthetics for sore feet, to headphones custom-fitted for our asymmetric, melon-sized heads, 3D printers will transform manufacturing, because they don't care how freaky we are. How will podiatrists or tennis shoe factories in China feel about entrepreneurs printing the perfect-fitting stuff we want without their help? Copyright squabbles over "design patents" (as opposed to "invention patents") are sure to plague the 3D printing era.
Larry Flint had whipped Middle America into a frenzy over his pornographic 2D printing activities in the 1970s, to the point where a would-be assassin put him in a wheelchair during a trial where he successfully exercised his right to free speech. The personal computer age certainly hasn't "solved" the porn issue. Instead it's argued that, along with on-line gambling, porn turned the Internet into the engine of commerce it is today. Any attempt to prevent printers and computers from disseminating porn would be as fruitful as trying to stop the sun from coming up. It's just a primal part of human nature that many people would rather not face. China wields the most "successful" campaign to partially block these morally and culturally offensive images from a technology-savvy population. Attempts by Washington to censor the American Internet are not nearly as oppressive, but are met with overwhelming, organized resistance by the giants of Silicon Valley all the same.
Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed is in a well-publicized fight with gun-control politicians over the imminent censorship of the first offensive 3D images on-line, those used to print plastic guns and AR-15 lower receivers. It looks like the NRA is not going to fight for Cody's right to print his own gun; their mission lies more along protecting his right to buy one. Senator Charles Schumer and U.S. Representative Steve Israel, the dynamic gun-control duo from New York, are hot on stopping 3D-printed guns. This caused concern that an over-zealous Congress would clamp down on 3D printing in general, and our competitiveness in future global markets. Mr. Israel's legislation originally included the emotionally-charged phrase "3D-printed guns" in the title, but has since kicked it down a notch to "plastic guns" to better reflect his intent, and to put the future of 3D printing in America less at risk. It might be moot, since the U.S. Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance is now equating the act of uploading a blueprint for a gun with the illegal act (for some) of shipping weapons overseas. They are demanding that Cody Wilson now prove he has not committed a crime. This is getting really good, or really bad, depending on your definition of freedom.
Forget about printing a pair of plastic nunchaku off the web - those are already illegal in New York, where people don't kill people, nunchaku apparently do. From battle axes and swords, to Mrs. Peacock's candlestick, there's no end to the offensive and unacceptable 3D printed murder weapons that need to be banned. The Klingon bat'leth is next on the list — and believe me, you can put an eye out with one of those things.
In reality, banning printed weapons won't prevent murder, and banning 3D printers won't prevent counterfeiting or copyright infringement. As leaders in China know, pornography censorship doesn't prevent sexual deviance or rape. Courts will just need to trudge along, confronting the people who commit crimes, instead of the inanimate objects they print in their basements, or post on-line.