We are on the verge of a new industrial revolution. The introduction of 3D printing represents what could be the biggest change for the consumer markets ever. Its launch into the mass market would induce a colossal shift in how consumers buy, and create new products. Having these printers available however has raised questions regarding the risks of such an open technology allowed for consumer use.
3D printing allows for the design and construction of actual objects, simply and very effectively. The process is remarkably similar to when we use a paper printer; all you need is a specialised 3D printer, a computer, and the materials required to create the objects (in the place of ink and paper). The special matter used is generally a form of plastic, but as advances are being made other materials will also be introduced.
The technology behind it is relatively new; it has been worked on for a number of years now, but as the price of the hardware behind it starts reaching mass-market levels for the first time it has suddenly been thrown into the spotlight. With a 3D printer in every home, people will be able to buy all their products online and print them out right in front of them. No delivery time, no need to go to the shops – revolutionary shopping.
Not only will consumers benefit from 3D printing, but so will small businesses. It will become much easier and cheaper for startups to design and create products and market them for sale. Sales can all be done online: goods will all be bought digitally and the designs will be sent straight to the consumer’s printer, bypassing the need for manufacturers and retailers. Economies of scale will no longer be so relevant. The end result will be significantly lower costs and will need less money for initial investment. We will no doubt see an explosion in the consumer market as cash stripped inventors will be finally given the tools through which they can sell their creations cheaply.
The clear economic benefits and changes 3D printers would bring about has not been the principle focus of the media in recent days however. Rather, it has been the announcement that a fully working gun can be made using one of these printers. Unsurprisingly, this has led to questions arising regarding regulating and controlling the technology for people’s safety, and the gun control debate currently being discussed in the United States.
Designed by Defense Distributed, — a group whose purpose is “To defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms” – the gun is called the “Liberator” and can be printed almost wholly from a 3D printer, all except the firing pin. This part can be fashioned from a nail however, leaving little to stop consumers from creating their very own, completely working firearm.
With such open technology being obtainable, it took little time before some consumers began trying to create firearms using 3D printing. The announcement does pose a question regarding how freely available this technology should be allowed in the consumer markets. If one can simply create such a weapon in the comfort of their own home, are the risks in releasing this technology to the mass market too great?
Those interested in using a 3D printer for malicious use would no doubt find a way to acquire one and circumvent any restrictions or blocks in the hardware. Popular modern products (iPhone, iPad, Android) get hacked with little effort, often within days of their release despite the vast sums companies pour into software security. Government organisations regularly try and block access to piracy websites, but their efforts are usually in vain and often counterproductive.
The accessibility of this technology demonstrates that trying to regulate it in today’s age is impossible. But will that mean an outright ban of it? The development of 3D Printing is of revolutionary importance, either technologically speaking, or politically.