In January this year, the issue of internet piracy became more complex than ever. The Pirate Bay, perhaps the most well-known torrent website in the world, launched a new category called Physibles. These files for 3D printers allowed anyone with a kit-built resin printer, a laptop and internet access to manufacture their own objects…
If you can recreate a copyrighted design in a CAD application, you can share it, print it and potentially sell it too. This poses new opportunities for digital manufacture while giving companies another reason to worry about intellectual property.
In theory, the ability to pirate the physical is already there. But files in the scant selection on the Pirate Bay currently include replica feet, light switches and cowboy hats, so it’s unlikely that Games Workshop have much to worry about yet. Nonetheless, the launch of the Physibles category brought the reality of 3D printing home for many. The manufacture of a physical object is no longer something that can only be done in a factory with massive investment and weighty labour costs, it has made manufacture more immediate. The consequences for designers, architects and other creative industries is potentially revolutionary.
In a society focused on convenience, it’s perhaps no surprise that we have arrived at this point so soon. Since the first email was sent in 1971, the speed of acquisition (of information or objects) has been rapidly increasing. We travel quicker, communicate instantly and expect our entertainment to be delivered on demand. In the 17th century, Stradivari would spend up to two months crafting a violin which now sells for millions of pounds. In 2011, a copy was printed in a few hours and assembled by a violin maker in a couple of days.
Over the last twenty years, the cost of acquiring the technology needed to print in 3D has dropped below the price of a laser printer in the mid-1980s. Although these machines are not common place yet, technology has come along leaps and bounds with the release of low cost self build kit machines like Thing-o-Matic, the Maker bot and Cubify 3D that come ready to print straight out of the box.
Digital manufacture also opens doors for designers who have so far struggled to make complex objects quickly at a low cost. The technology continues to grow at a tremendous pace. Up to a few years ago 3D printers were used to print mainly with plastics, but it’s now possible to print with other materials such as nylon, paper but most notable with metal. Israel based company Objet are pushing the boundaries of mechanical prototyping, printing high resolution sophisticated product and engineering components from multiple materials. Objects that cannot be moulded or glued can now also be printed, including complex honeycomb structures.
The 3D printer could be the ultimate end point of the automated world as human labour becomes less valuable and less important to manufacturers. Obtaining items ‘on demand’ could arguably introduce environmental concerns and increase the disposable nature of tangible goods. The real issue for tomorrow’s technology companies will be time; the quality of items produced on your 3D printer could be less important than the convenience and speed involved in obtaining them.