Rapid Prototyping ≠ Digital Reproduction

BoingBoing has mentioned a new whitepaper outlining the copyright and patent complexities of at-home 3D printing. Copyright violation and 3D printing may not be as big of a potential issue as the paper makes out.

The current copyright controversy is driven by the fact that duplicating an information artifact costs much, much less than purchasing said artifact. However, this effect is not present in 3D printing. The base material costs money, and the range of possible materials is restricted. Therefore, mass manufacturing of parts should still be cheaper, more efficient, and in some cases produce better products, than at-home 3D printing. These parameters may change as the technology matures, but I doubt the Chinese plastic trinket market is in danger anytime soon. Rapid prototyping is far more a means of creation than it is a means of production.

Most plastic objects we encounter day-to-day have little value added beyond their actual physical manufacturing cost. As long as mass production remains more efficient for plastic parts, there should be enough of a gap between the cost of home printing and the cost of an industrially produced item to discourage piracy. I understand that this is oversimplified : there may be objects that have artificially enforced scarcity, by copyright and patents. However, I just can't remember running into such an object, built only out of plastic, in recent memory. Design patents are still an issue, but these do not limit functional reproduction, only aesthetic.

I'm obviously overlooking some things. For instance, a 3D printer that could operate on recycled materials just might undercut mass production. However, there is still an upper limit to how much thermoplastic you want piling up in your house. If you had to physically print out every article you wanted to pirate, your study would rapidly fill with articles and papers ( and indeed, many of our office are such masses of papers ). At some point you'd realize that the cost of all that toner might not really be worth it.

Of course, you might get a situation where people pirate objects, print them, use them for a time, and then recycle them back into feedstock. But, what would have been the fate of the same objects had they come from industrial production ? Overwhelmingly, they would be destined, like so much of the rest of the 20th century, for our landfills, garbage islands in the Pacific, and the stomachs of (dead) albatrosses. The only way rapid prototyping could become a sustained threat to manufacturing is for rapid prototyping to become both sustainable and a viable means of manufacturing, of which it is neither at this time.

I feel that there is some sort of intrinsic efficiency gain to mass production that will always discourage piracy of printable objects, but I would also love to be proved wrong in this assumption. If or when printing technology matures to this point, well ... heh ... they'll never be able to stop us anyway.

p.s. : but seriously, the paper is good and basically a completely accurate, way better analysis, than this post. so, head over there.


  1. What happens when major advances in the underlying technology of 3D printing allows not only for other materials such as metals, woods, even textiles to be used instead of plastic but allows them to be used simultaneously? E.g a printer may be able to switch between substrates to manufacture different parts of a whole object. I could even see a 3D printer handle the assembly of said parts. I don't think that these sorts of technological advances are that much of a leap. However at the same time, just looking at how much of a niche product even current 3D printing/self manufacturing/prototyping is, I can't help but think that the aforementioned scenario is not likely to happen anytime soon. Then again look how quickly pirating software and information moved from being very limited a few years ago to ubiquitous today.

  2. hmmm,

    I guess my main point is that there is nothing stopping individuals from patent and copyright violation of physical objects right now. With enough time, money, and determination, you can build anything. The advantage of these at-home manufacturing systems, if they ever come to term, is that you can fabricate things for much less money, much faster and with much less effort. However, this is simply changing the scale of manufacture. This isn't like the tape cassette or hard drive, which facilitates copyright violation at zero cost, this is still manufacturing. Even the most advanced 3D fabrication systems will still have limits on physical materials, and time and energy requirements. If I had to burn a CD for every mp3 I'd downloaded, I'd probably stop downloading, because at some point buying CDs gets expensive and annoying. Physical objects are similar, but with much steeper costs : the materials are more expensive, they take up more space, and they are significantly harder to recycle, compared to bits on a hard disk.

  3. I tried to write a long, coherent comment but my mind seems incapable at the moment. So I will just add a few random notes.

    I can't seem to find it again, but I remember reading on one of the RepRap blogs that there are some pretty harsh limits to the number of times that plastic (at least the kind that 3D printers use) can be recycled. Something about the polymer chains getting shorter each time, decreasing the strength of the material. Of course, you could just print things with higher infill, or only use it for decorative objects, but it definitely sounded like recycling the same material forever was out of the question.

    With printing material currently at around $12/lb, it really is cheaper to just print certain things than buy them. Most small objects end up well under a dollar each. You save on shipping costs, but maybe most significantly, you aren't paying to generate a profit for everyone involved in manufacturing those objects. If some object is protected by IP law, such as artwork, it will definitely be much cheaper to pirate it.

    I agree with you that printed plastic things can pile up fast. Most of the stuff I've printed is in boxes, since I don't have much room to display it. But most of the things that most people buy end up in boxes (or the trash) anyway.

    I thought the paper was surprisingly unhelpful and vague. Or at least, it doesn't seem to help me answer the question "if I copy this thing will I infringe on someone's IP?" It sounds like with current law, the answer is "probably not". I would have liked to see more examples. On Thingiverse someone has copied a 1984 Fisher Price Crazy Combo Horn Set ( http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:4647 ), generating some discussion about what kind of patent/copyright/trademark he might be violating. But nobody has provided a solid answer. And there are several copies of LEGO blocks and figures.

    I disagree with your burning CDs argument. If that was the best we could do, a lot of people would still choose piracy over purchasing CDs. A blank CD still costs far less money than a legitimate music CD. Maybe you'd only have a 10x advantage vs. 1,000,000x for music on a hard drive, but that's still huge. Similarly, personal manufacturing won't come anywhere near digital media piracy, but it will still (eventually) be pretty big.

  4. Hi Mike, thanks for pointing out the flaws in my reasoning. I guess I was biased, because I'm working the the MakerBot and the print quality is sufficiently poor that I would prefer an industrially produced version of most things, just for the sake of quality. I mostly use my MakerBot for things that can't be bought.

    I didn't know that ABS degraded, but the shortening of chain length makes sense. I wonder if poly-lactic acid (PLA) based plastics suffer from the same problem ? I'm more optimistic about PLA in the future of 3D printing, because its biological in origin, biocompatible, and biodegradable. One thing I hate about MakerBot is all the failed prints that are going to end up in the landfill.

    I assume the reason Lego hasn't complained about 3D printing is that Lego quality is nearly impossible to beat. Just compare their nearest professional competitor : MegaBlocks. I remember hearing that Legos are precise down to microns. If home 3D printing could do that ... well, it would be very exciting, and Lego might have a run for its money. Of course, other companies _already_ clone Legos, and they are still competitive.

    Offhand I'd say printing that flute thing violates Fischer-Price's copyright. Its not really stylish enough to be a design patent, but you are making a printout from a digital file someone presumably worked hard to create. The printout doesn't have the nice colors and shiny finish of the original, so it is a degraded copy. I'd say maybe its on par with recording a television episode or radio broadcast. But then again, the original flute probably was never released in a way resembling public broadcast, so its more similar to a degraded private copy. Since we destroy people for reproducing low quality mp3 rips of music, I could see how one might interpret this flute to be infringing -- if it were not for private use or a 'backup' flute. It is an interesting grey area, thanks for the link! I think the best thing to do is just to flood thingiverse with so many great creative-commons designs, people won't bother to waste their time infringing.

    I guess I neglected shipping and personnel overhead when considering whether or not 3D printing gives you a cost advantage over industrial manufacturing. I'm still pretty confident that mass production will beat out 3D printing in price and quality for common items, but it may start to cut into profits for more niche products. I'm still light-years away from recovering the cost of this Maker-Bot. I wonder how long it will take for at-home 3D printing to break even with mass production?

  5. I've given it some more thought and I have to agree with the main points of your post. Especially "Rapid prototyping is far more a means of creation than it is a means of production."

    The question "what is 3D printing good for?" comes up a lot and I've spent some time trying to think of answers. In the early days of the RepRap project, the joke was that they could be used to make (almost) free combs. I remember some of the other early things printed: coat hangar, door stop, Nintendo DS stylus. Just a lot of really mundane things that don't justify the time and money to put together one of these machines.

    And I was trying to think, well what kind of everyday objects can be printed instead of bought? But I came to the realization that I hardly ever even buy (nonconsumable) "objects", let alone simple plastic ones. With the notable exception of clothes (and maybe electronics), do people even buy that many physical things? It seems like the major expenses, like food, shelter, utilities, healthcare will see little benefit from home 3D printing.

    So I realized that at least right now, 3D printing is just for fun. I got my first computer when I was around 12 or 13, and all I ever did with it was play games; it was basically a really expensive console. Even now, I'd say that 95% of the time I spend on the computer (at home) is for entertainment purposes, such as reading this blog.

    The same is true for my 3D printer. I think the only functional parts I've printed are replacement parts to repair it. Half the fun comes from designing my own objects and then printing them.

    At around $1000 for a 3D printer, it's an expensive hobby. But just as I don't expect to recoup the money I've spent on video games, I don't expect the 3D printer to ever pay for itself.

    As a result, I don't expect 3D printers to become really popular anytime soon. Even if they were only a couple hundred dollars, how many people would really have fun using one? And as you mentioned, there just aren't that many things to pirate.

    This post is getting too long again, but I wanted to mention that the major issue with the Makerbot is that the extruder is driven by a DC motor, rather than a stepper motor. This makes fine control of filament extrusion difficult/impossible. Stepper driven extruders can easily eliminate stringing by precisely reversing the extruder.

    The other issue is that ABS warps like crazy, as you've noticed. The only real solutions are to get a heated bed or print in PLA. I think the newest Makerbot extruder, the Mark5, can print in PLA, but I think the previous versions have trouble with it.

    I am very fortunate that my extruder is both stepper driven and capable of printing in PLA. But with enough tweaking, some users have gotten very good print quality from Makerbots. Someone even printed with 0.1mm layers, which came out looking really nice (but must have taken forever!).

  6. Anonymous31.5.11

    I don't get it. If it's cheaper to make something at home than buying it from an established business,

    _that simply means that the specific market is obsolete_

    Seems very basic to me. Let's not waste resources keeping things alive that are useless.

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