The Threat of 3D Printing: Will Governments and Big Industry Crush a Promising Technology?

We had the absolute pleasure of attending Maker Faire 2012 in New York last weekend, where we got to see first hand the hubbub surrounding 3D printing, a promising technology that's been receiving so much attention lately, and rightfully so. It's clear to us and to many others that 3D printing isn't a passing fad, but perhaps an evolutionary step in the field of manufacturing, if not revolutionary, and that has some people very nervous.

You see, 3D printing has the potential to shake up the consumer landscape as we know it. Not today, not tomorrow, and probably not even within the next few years -- today's machines are too expensive and limited in functionality to, say, print a pair of jeans at home. But down the line, machines like the Makerbot and ReRap are only going to get more advanced and accessible. There will come a time when home users will be able to print everyday objects from home. That's an awesome thing, and perhaps scary to some.

3D Fan

To wit, a company called Defense Distributed decided to develop designs for 3D-printable guns called Wiki Weapons. They raised $20,000 in funding for the project, which aimed to create a file that could be distributed across the Internet and downloaded by anyone who wanted to (and had the means) to print a working pistol at home. Materials and technology being what they are, second-year law student and Defense Distributed site owner Cody Wilson argued that it only needed to work once to be effective. To make a long story short (you can read more about it if you wish), Stratasys voided its uPrint SE 3D printer lease with Defense Distributed after learning what it was being used for, on the basis that it's illegal to manufacture firearms without a license.

It's not just about what Wilson's company was printing, however, but what the ramifications are that could ultimately halt a promising technology.

"The Defense Distributed's goal isn't really about personal armament, it's more the liberation of information," Wilson explained in a video promoting Wiki Weapon. "It's about living in a world where you just download for the thing you want to make in this life. As the printing press kind of revolutionized literacy, 3D printing is in its moment."

Politics being what they are, you have to wonder if 3D printing will ultimately fulfill its potential of shaking up the industry and revolutionizing big industry, or if big industry, along with the government, will weigh the technology down with rules, regulations, and a ton of red tape. As points out, it's only a matter of time before the lobbying for laws and restrictions begins.

"They put fear into people's heads. These devices could be used by terrorists in malicious ways. Criminals could print guns and other weapons with them. Kids could make all manner of things they shouldn't with them. Inevitably, someone does create something evil with one of these devices. Governments everywhere fall in line and enact laws heavily restricting their use. You now need a license to own one, and legally they must have restrictions on them that only allow them to print designs approved by the government," writes.

Again, we really enjoyed our time at Maker Faire 2012 and it would be shame if all the things we saw and the potential that exists were ultimately hamstrung by corporations and governments.