It's not every day that one's wildest sci-fi inspired dreams are achieved, but yesterday was such a day.
Over the past few years, I have watched the quiet development of 3D printing unfold. It has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary, with innovations taking place in the rarefied domains of university R&D centers and labs, or in the basements and garages of tinkerers, hackers and makers - the kinds of gadgeteers and engineers willing to bang their heads against a problem until they triumph with a solution, and know that the headbanging part is the actual fun of it. As these printers (in reality, they're something more akin to giant glue guns that can read instructions and move rapidly along x, y and z axes to produce objects by stacking layers measured in millimeters of thickness - here's a good layman's explanation of a few different types of printers available) have come down in price and increased in terms of ease and reliability, they have, predictably, been turning up in more and more places. They are coming out of the garages and into the light, and they are finding homes in community hackerspaces, fab labs, and even libraries.
My own city has benefited greatly by the presence of a fantastic collaborative hackerspace, open to the public via frequent classes, events and a monthly membership. Last night, Sector67 offered an intro to 3D printing, so, for $20 and two hours of time, I was treated to a five-person whirlwind tour of the state of the industry art by none other than Sector's founder and extremely knowledgeable 3D printer nut, Chris Meyer. During our two hours, we were given an overview of all of the extant 3D printing material options: powder, ABS, PLA (a corn-based plastic that previously mostly functioned as a support system in commercial ABS product manufacturing). We walked through the various 3D printers out there, ranging from the ridiculously DIY (the RepRap, made from 3D-printed parts - a weird, amoeba-like thing to think about) to the very expensive and more functional than hackable (the MakerBot Replicator 2) We examined the output of each, discussed the potential faults and pitfalls of working with the printing control software, ReplicatorG, and - joy of joys! - my idea for production of a print was chosen by Chris as the example we would watch be created before our eyes while talking over the finer points of "jitter" and Skeinforge. We would be printing out a 3D version of a game tile from the popular German boardgame, the Settlers of Catan - with my apologies to the guy who wanted a camera case for his GoPro HeroHD camera.
I downloaded the plans for my gamepiece from the crowdsourced 3D site Thingiverse, and avoided a potential stumbling block when I discovered that the CAD-like STL files I had previously drooled over were nowhere to be found. Tabling that for a moment, I quickly found an alternative. We downloaded the files, picked one component (an "ore tile," for any Settlers nerds out there), and started printing. 49 minutes later, and I had one lukewarm tile in my hot hands.
And here we get to the sci-fi dreams: look, simply put, watching this thing be created before my eyes was incredible. Anyone who has had a chance to come face to face with a functional version of one of these machines has undoubtedly gone away mesmerized, with visions of what they could do with one of these things in the context of rapid prototyping, proof-of-concept testing, materials development (think: plastic textiles, printed on demand), and just plain fun. Where could any harm lie?
Well, it turns out that there is a potential dark cloud on the horizon for 3D printing. When I got home, I did some poking around, looking for the initial Settlers of Catan 3D boardpiece files that had initially piqued my interest in 3D printing as a technology with personal significance a couple years ago. I even remembered the username of the user on Thingiverse who had created them: Sublime. While I found many references to Sublime and his/her awesome game pieces, all links led me to a big, fat, dead end - and possibly the best 404 I've ever seen. What had happened to Sublime, and to the Catan plans? Well, it looks like a cold wind blew into the 3D printing universe: the chilling effect specter of copyright.
And while I couldn't find Sublime anywhere, I did find this Public Knowledge post that suggested that a. Sublime was getting nervous about potential infringement and b. there was likely no infringement going on. After all, as PK pointed out, "...the pieces themselves are not even distributed. Instead, if you want the pieces you need to download the files, boot up your 3D printer, and make them yourself." This post is related to a larger whitepaper that PK authored, aptly entitled, "It Will Be Awesome if They Don't Screw it Up." This contribution delves further into specifics of original product creation, the making of copies, the nature of patent, trademark and other relevant issues. Yet the title says it all: given that we are still dealing with an ongoing culture and legal war over what constitutes ownership over IP with digital material contained in computer files and compiled of 1s and 0s, it seems unlikely that the introduction of the ability to create tangible, functional 3D objects - or, more to the point, to _replicate_ extant ones - will have clear-cut solutions or yield easily divined answers. Further, it's not as if legal posturing and wrangling of the past 15 years has slowed the trade in copyrighted materials in the slightest. How long until we see the flip, dark side of Thingiverse, a Pirate Bay for files pulled for copyright infringement , illicit materials, weapons? The latter is not pure conjecture; a smart-alecky law student type from Texas has made his share of headlines with his dream to freely distribute handgun blueprints for DIY arsenal-builders.
Given this, are we likely to, as PK puts it, spoil everything by screwing it up? As 3D printing technology is poised on the verge of making a leap from the esoteric to the commonplace and from the rare to the ubiquitous, questions about the technology with invariably shift, from "Can we do this?" to "Should we?" Meanwhile, I plan to book as much time at Sector67 as I can to get my board printed out before it's too late.