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.”