3D Printing and its Potential Applications

3D printing is an up-and-coming technology that has caught the interest of a wide variety of people and has numerous applications. There are commercial applications, such as the efficient production of prototypes and mockups of small products. There are also personal use applications, such as the ability to reproduce a part for an appliance that would otherwise be impossible or not cost-effective to buy from
the manufacturer.

There are many other use cases of 3D printing. One is the printing of prosthetic hands, arms, and other limbs. A U.S.-based group called e-NABLE has been very involved in printing prosthetic limbs, both for users domestically and for charity purposes abroad. 3D printing can be used to make parts from recycled e-waste or to fabricate better and cheaper wind turbines for generating energy.

Other charitable applications abound: as a panelist at Public Knowledge’s 3D printing industry event 3D/ DC, held in April, Bo Pollett, the D.C. ambassador for Tikkun Olam (a group which organizes 3D printing events to help the disabled), told the story of a small boy in South America who couldn’t walk (and thus couldn’t play soccer, a prominent social activity in that area). The components for an electric wheelchair were 3D printed for the boy, so he could then play soccer and participate in his community.

3D printing has the potential to bridge the “workforce skills gap,” as it could bring more manufacturing jobs. However, as Diego Tamburini, manufacturing industry
strategist at Autodesk, observed at the 3D/DC event, jobs utilizing these technologies will require more advanced skills than traditional manufacturing. Workers will need computer and possibly design skills in addition to the technical knowledge required to run the machines.

Tamburini said that he didn’t believe 3D printing would totally supplant traditional manufacturing – for large numbers of items, traditional methods are quicker and more cost-effective. However, smaller parts and smaller batches of items will be practical candidates for 3D printing.

Drivers of Adoption

Adoption rates of 3D printing are still fairly low, but they are expected to increase in the next few years. Supply chain and logistics trade association MHI conducted a study in conjunction with consulting firm Deloitte on what industry professionals think about the adoption of 3D printing. They found that 48 percent of respondents think that they will adopt 3D printing in the next six to 10 years, compared with the current adoption rate of only 14 percent.

Michael Gravier, an associate professor of marketing and global supply chain management at Bryant University, said, “the technology itself is fascinating, yet the
implications for all this technology are only just beginning to be understood. 3D printing is a game changer for manufacturing but its real impact on supply chains will
take years to play out.”

Adoption of new technology in manufacturing and logistics is not necessarily an indicator that it will be adopted en masse by consumers, but it does show a
growing interest in and acceptance of this new technology. Mass adoption by companies could also mean lower prices for the devices across the board.

There are a few drivers of interest in 3D printing. One is its public perception as a new, interesting technology. At the 3D/DC seminar, Adam Schaeffer, who works at the 3D printing center at Washington D.C.’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, said that he regularly sees teenagers and seniors, who would normally not interact with each other, show equal curiosity about 3D printing. This is a technology that garners interest across multiple demographics.

Another driver is the gradual decline in prices that comes with adoption of a new technology. Personal computers initially cost thousands of dollars, offering a level of
capability we would scoff at today – but within a few years, costs started going down and performance started going up.

Prices for 3D printers have already started to decrease and will continue to go down. According to a report released by marketing research firm IBISWorld, the price of 3D
printing machines are expected to fall 6.4% in 2016.

There are multiple reasons why costs are starting to decrease, including the decreasing costs of raw materials used as well as increasing competition. Procurement research analyst Agiimaa Kruchkin pointed to the technological innovation in the industry as a major factor, saying: “Most importantly, the constant innovation and improvement in 3D printers have consistently slashed
manufacturing costs.”

Two manufacturers, Stratasys Ltd. and 3D Systems, Inc., have for a few years exerted considerable control over the market (with over 55 percent market share between them). Recently, however, a host of new companies has entered the scene, increasing competition and functioning as a driver for lower prices. In 2015, there were around 100 3D printing suppliers: 70 manufacturers and about 30 retailers and distributors with more expected to enter the space in coming years.

Obstacles to Adoption

As with any rising technology, however, there are obstacles to adoption. Costs will still inhibit the ubiquity of the technology for a few years, even though they are going down in price. There is also the concern that printers will get more specialized, and thus the prices won’t go down as quickly as predicted. This could occur if there isn’t adoption of more generalized printers by the general public.

Public perception can be a double-edged sword when it comes to adoption – while many people will show passionate interest in a new technology, others will be disinterested or possibly even hostile. People outside of larger cities might not be as interested as quickly in the technical aspects, though fabrication of hard to get parts should pique the interest of people in rural areas.

Areas with limited access to the Internet represent a roadblock to adoption, since web access is needed to download digital plans to use with the printers. 3D/DC panelist Becky Button, a 15-year-old “maker” (the term for individuals who use printers as hobbyists or for other purposes) recounted an anecdote from her school; the library had a 3D printer under a plastic case for months and it was not used, because no one knew how to use it. Some may also be apprehensive of expensive technology, as people who aren’t knowledgeable about this technology don’t want to break anything and possibly be liable.

Another panelist at 3D/DC, Joseph Williams, Executive Director of Technology at Perris Union High School in Perris, California, asserted that by the time students hit high school, they have lost a lot of creativity due to the educational system. According to Williams, it doesn’t help that teachers often know even less about the technology than their students do. So, he said, younger kids will be the better bet to learn and experiment with 3D printing, and teachers will have to be learning along with their students at all levels.

The Potential Legal Issues with 3D Printing

In his book Permissionless Innovation, Adam Thierer of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University writes, “Prosthetics are medical devices in a traditional regulatory sense, but few people are asking the FDA for permission to create new 3-D-printed limbs. Instead, they are just going ahead and engaging in this sort of life-enriching innovation.”

3D printing is unlike other areas of innovation, which are contentious due to the traditional regulation of their sector – drones and self-driving cars come to mind. The Federal Aviation Administration has a significant say and stake in the drone space due to the potential impact on traditional aviation, and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and numerous states’ Departments of Motor Vehicles have similar involvement in regulating self-driving cars. 3D printing potentially faces regulation when it comes to application or the product produced, rather than the devices themselves, and as with many new technologies there is the question of which agency “owns” the issue.

The media and politicians alike have expressed much concern over the potential availability of 3D-printed guns and there have been attempts to ban or restrict them at multiple levels of government, both in the United States and abroad. For example, Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) put forward H.R. 2699, the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act of 2015. That bill has been in committee since July 2015.

There are also intellectual property concerns: Thierer asks, “what is the future of intellectual property when products can be so easily replicated by not just companies but average citizens?”

According to Giulio Coraggio, a partner at law firm DLA Piper, there are three central legal issues inherent in the technology. The first is that 3D printing could be seen as the “new piracy.” He writes that as with the piracy of movies and music, we could see a black market for cloned items made on 3D printers. He points out that to reproduce an object you need just two things: a 3D printer, and a digital schematic of the product. He also points to the possibility of multiple levels of copyright infringement: the creation of the 3D CAD file might be considered an infringement on design rights, the dissemination of that file could be considered a “contributory infringement” of those IP rights. Creating and disseminating or offering the physical 3D-printed replica could be considered an infringement as well, with possible exceptions for private,
non-commercial, or educational uses Coraggio notes.

The second main legal issue has to do with who is liable for items produced on a 3D printer. For example, if someone uses a printer to manufacture an illegal item such as drugs or a gun (which is then used to harm someone), or a product that malfunctions and harms the user or someone else; in that case, Coraggio writes:

“Product liability regulations refer to the manufacturer as entity liable for damages arising through the usage of products. But in a 3D printing scenario when the customer is the actual manufacturer we will have a number of different players: the owner of the printer, the manufacturer/supplier of the printer and the person that actually created and/or used an untested product.”

The third potential issue, according to Coraggio, has to do with privacy. Coraggio asserts that a CAD or a replica could contain personal information. Using the example of a doctor that 3D prints an exact replica of a patient’s organ to verify whether there may be issues during surgery, Coraggio points out the following potential questions regarding liability:
• Does the hospital have to acquire privacy consent?
• What happens to the 3D printed organ after the surgery?
• Will it be used for research, and might information about the patient (for example, the disease that affected him or her) be made available to third parties?

As for the potential for copyright regulation, Deven R. Desai, formerly of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law (now at Georgia Institute of Technology’s Scheller College of Business), and Gerard N. Magliocca, of Indiana University, write: “The technology seems so powerful that several groups may seek to hobble it in the name of protecting incumbent intellectual property rights holders.”

3D Printing and Smartphones

One new 3D printing product that shows promise is the “OLO” 3D printer. It is a small device that plugs into a smartphone, which it uses as the computing element in the printer. Solido3D, the Italian firm behind the device, concluded its Kickstarter campaign in April and raised $2,321,811 from 16,180 backers, smashing its initial $80,000 goal. The company estimates its first shipment will happen in September.

The OLO device may be too small and low-power to effectively disrupt the 3D printer market, as it might not be capable of printing larger or more complex items or may
take an exorbitantly long time to do so. However, what it could do is to attract broader interest in 3D printing. Of its 16,180 backers, some are likely to already own a larger 3D printer, however, most probably don’t and were excited about the prospect of this smartphone-capable gadget. High-performance printers are significantly more expensive than the OLO, as well as bigger and bulkier, but are also much more powerful.

This device could become an entry point into the 3D printer market, serving as the “starter home” of 3D printers. As users become more practiced and experienced with the OLO, they may naturally progress something more advance.

There’s a potential problem, however: If it turns out the OLO is not a very good product or perform as expected – or even worse, if it turns out the Kickstarter was a scam or the company takes too long to deliver that people assume it was a scam – then it could negatively impact the public perception of 3D printers. So, the stakes are high.

Moving Forward

3D printing is a technology with a lot of potential for improving the lives of consumers. It can enable consumers to produce small devices or parts for themselves, saving time and money. It may also give smaller vendors or businesses the option to produce parts in house, driving down costs for products. There are still hurdles to overcome – the general public should become more familiar with this technology, and the potential roadblocks around copyright and other legal issues must eventually be
overcome.

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