3D Printing and the New Industrial Revolution

Stephanie Curcio is a guest blogger at Law in the Making and is a 2L at the University of Western Ontario with an IP and technology area of concentration. Stephanie was selected as president of the Western Intellectual Property Association for the 2013-2014 school year.

3D printing is often heralded as the harbinger of the new industrial revolution and prosumerism, blurring the lines between producer and consumer. But has the technology really lived up to its lofty reputation?

Some skeptics criticize 3D printing, stating the technology is unable to democratize manufacturing. 3D printers as they are today are too costly and cumbersome, or produce products of too low quality to truly revolutionize manufacturing, particularly on a large scale. The manufacturing quality 3D printers were intended to deliver has not yet come into fruition. More advanced technology exists and is used by companies such as Shapeways but is too expensive for the average consumer to own, forcing week long waits for quality products that could have been printed at home (hindering the consumer-turned-producer spirit).

What is driving this problem? Patents.

A recent article by Quartz created some buzz noting that the key patents for Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), the technology used to produce high-resolution 3D products, are set to expire in 2014. What does this mean? Skeptics, hold your hats: the New Industrial Revolution is upon us. With this patent barrier gone, prices will drop and perhaps everyone really will own a quality 3D printer in just a few short years.

Great! …Right? Maybe not.

Tech Crunch points out that when the popularity and supply of a technology rises, prices drop but so does quality. They warn of a “race to the bottom” between competing manufacturers to push out the most machines at the lowest price sacrificing quality along the way. With rumors about Apple jumping on the 3D printing train, other big manufacturers are sure to follow. The article warns that “once these patents expire the world will be awash in cheap hardware designed to cash in on a fad. It is up to us, then, to be careful with what we buy.”

4 comments for “3D Printing and the New Industrial Revolution

  1. August 19, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    Great post.

    Prices will drop and consumer adoption will rise. But I don’t think this necessarily needs to correlate with poorer quality. In fact, as adoption rises and the market size increases, the exact opposite could happen: more competition could lead to better quality (in order to differentiate).

    We’re obviously still at the early stages of the technology adoption lifecycle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology_adoption_lifecycle), but certain industries/innovators are already benefiting hugely from 3D printing. Architectural practices, as one example, are now able to rapidly prototype in a way never possible before.

  2. Matt P
    August 21, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    Market size will likely increase as price drops, but will also reveal itself as segmented like any other market, perhaps with nonstandard segments. For example, those consumers interested in just playing around will self-identify by their demand for lower prices, those interested in high quality productions – including not just home users but small local producers – will demand a printer that achieves that, and various other auxiliary feaures demands will emerge. However, the existing value chain in sales and distribution of goods like plastic forks and knives, that are already readily available and and not as subject to quality demands, may find itself able to operate more cheaply by turning to 3D printing itself rather than rely on the incumbent injection molding technologies (provided 3D is actually cheaper because lowers distribution and warehousing costs for example), and many home users will continue to buy from Walmart and dollar stores out of habit or switching costs (I would not buy a $1000 printer to print my dollar store plastic knives for any economic reasons; I might do that with spare cash for interest sake, once). I think that such incumbents will maintain a price and advantage.

    It is quite possible that, rather than driving what is expressed as a problem, the patents that are soon to expire are some of the very instruments that permitted Shapeways or whomever else to develop their high quality machinery from older generation technology, and drive the art forward when it was nascent, rather than be forced by opportunist copyists to stall investment in further developments and refinements in lieu of merely surviving in a price war.

  3. August 22, 2013 at 10:25 am

    There’s a lot of rumour and innuendo in this post.

    Here’s a fact. Even without any expired patents, NASA has publicly stated that the use of SLS and 3D printing technologies has cut the cost of NASA rocket parts by between 30-50% and dropped the turn around time for replacement parts by an order of magnitude (from 6 months to 40 hours in one case).

    Check out http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/3dprinting.html to learn more…

    Also, anyone interested in learning about some of the real problems with patents and how they compare with other legal options (like trade secret law), might want to check out http://acuriousguy.blogspot.ca/2013/04/protecting-space-technology-through.html.

  4. Stephanie Curcio
    October 5, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    Thank you for your comments. In reply, this post was meant to include rumor and innuendo. It was written as a light reflection on the recent buzz created in the online community about upcoming SLS patent expiration as well as the diverging opinions about possible repercussions. Personally, I have nothing but a curious eye to the future.

    Chuck, I have been following NASA’s use of 3D printing and will continue to do so. Thank you for sharing the link you provided with myself and fellow readers.

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