TOPIC :- 3-D Printing
ACHARYA INSTITUTE OF MANAGEMENT AND SCIENCES
(Affiliated to Bangalore University)
WHAT could well be the next great technological disruption is fermenting away, out of sight, in small workshops, college labs, garages and basements. Tinkerers with machines that turn binary digits into molecules are pioneering a whole new way of making things—one that could well rewrite the rules of manufacturing in much the same way as the PC trashed the traditional world of computing.
The machines, called 3D printers, have existed in industry for years. But at a cost of $100,000 to $1m, few individuals could ever afford one. Fortunately, like everything digital, their price has fallen. So much so, industrial 3D printers can now be had for $15,000, and home versions for little more than $1,000 (or half that in kit form). “In many ways, today’s 3D printing community resembles the personal computing community of the early 1990s,” says Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at Public Knowledge, an advocacy group in Washington, DC.
As an expert on intellectual property, Mr Weinberg has produced a white paper that documents the likely course of 3D-printing's development—and how the technology could be affected by patent and copyright law. He is far from sanguine about its prospects. His main fear is that the fledgling technology could have its wings clipped by traditional manufacturers, who will doubtless view it as a threat to their livelihoods, and do all in their powers to nobble it. Because of a 3D printer's ability to make perfect replicas, they will probably try to brand it a piracy machine. Manufacturers of famous brands have had to contend with rip-offs since time immemorial. Whole neighborhoods exist in Hongkong, Bangkok and even Tokyo that turn out imitation designer handbags, shoes and watches. China has flooded the world with cheap replacement parts based on designs pirated from the original equipment manufacturers. But while the pirates' labour rates and material costs may be far lower, the tools they use to make fakes are essentially the same as those used by the original manufacturers. Equipment costs alone have therefore limited the spread of the counterfeiting industry. But give every sweatshop around the world a cheap 3D printer coupled to a laser scanner, and pirated goods could well proliferate. The first thing to know about 3D printing is that it is an “additive”, rather than a “subtractive”, form of processing. The tools are effectively modified ink-jet printers that deposit successive layers of material until a three-dimensional object is built up. In doing so, they typically use a tenth of the material needed when machining a part from bulk. The goop used for printing can be a thermoplastic such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polylactic acid or polycarbonate, or metallic powders, clays and even living cells depending on the application (see “Making it”, November 25th 2011).
As far as intellectual property is concerned, the 3D printer itself is not the problem. But before it can start making anything, it needs a CAD (computer-aided design) file of the object to be produced, along with specialised software to tell the printer how to lay down the successive layers of material. The object can be designed on a computer using CAD software, or files of standard objects can be downloaded from open-source archives such as Thingiverse and Fab@Home. Most likely, though, the object to be produced is copied from an existing one, using a scanner that records the three-dimensional measurements from various angles and turns the data into a CAD file.
Earlier this year, for instance, one hobbyist worked out how to print the popular “Penrose Triangle”, an optical illusion that cannot exist in normal three-dimensional Euclidean space, and released a video challenging others to say how it was done....