There's a rather civil and reasoned struggle underway right now to divine a future for 3D printing as a business, a hobby or a vocation, and the struggle might end with a whimper rather than a bang.
At one end of the scale lie major industrial producers and suppliers with a vested interest in protecting their intellectual property, at the other, a community based on an open-source ethos of sharing and democratizing that same mental capital.
The argument, if there is one at all, might come down to how much protection of intellectual property society can control and absorb. A recent and well-publicized case brought it all to a head in a clash of the new and the old paradigm of 3D printing as a business.
So how can the output of 3D printers, their associated design files and the intellectual capital contained in those files be protected by the people who make them? And should those files be protected at all?
It seems a tug of war between the open source culture and the standard capitalist model, albeit on a wider and more decentralized scale.
One model of controlling printer output would see identifiers printed into a product or piece which could enable investigators to trace any part along a given supply chain. The designer, the printer, and any intermediary could embed these identifiers which could then be used to production stamp the digitally manufactured object.
Andre Wegner, CEO of Authentise, says he was confronted with a realization back during June 2012 when he was stunned by the horror of a supply chain failure which was the likely cause of an airplane crash. The crash took the lives of 160 people in Lagos, Nigeria. Wegner, who was living in Nigeria at the time, was baffled when he learned that it took a minimum of 3-5 days to get a critical spare part into Nigeria. And at that the parts were fairly likely to be smuggled into the country.
When he began to consider a solution to address those failures, Wegner was also introduced to 3D printing technology – and something clicked.
"As we learned more about 3D printing, particularly while attending Singularity University that summer, we realized that the technology had the potential to address the underlying challenges," Wegner said. "Don't get me wrong – it's nowhere near yet, but the promise of being able to build objects where they were needed was just too compelling to miss."
A little more research led Wegner and his partner and CTO, Robert Hryniewicz, to another illumination.
"As we researched the subject we noted that there were smart people making both hardware and design software work for 3D printing. It's a rapidly evolving area and the companies playing in the space have had their hands full," Wegner says. "There seemed to be a number of different pieces that were missing to make our distributed manufacturing vision a reality. Chief amongst these were Intellectual Property concerns, so these are the first we're addressing."
According to Wegner, Authentise streams designs into 3D printers, providing reporting and security for those designs, and thereby acts as a form of digital design distribution. Wegner says Authentise can be used to print and distribute finished objects, email raw design files, and enable content owners to send streams of their designs directly into 3D printers.
Design rights-holders would send files to remote printer bureaus (or send the designs to home printers) and thereby maintain control of those designs.
Wegner says that some 80% of the top 20 designers on Shapeways.com told him his service would be the preferred method of distributing their designs. He says Sendshapes.com is the trial run of this technology. Users upload a design, enter their own email address and that of the recipient. Sendshapes.com then returns a link with which the recipient can connect to the Sendshapes.com servers and start printing.
The key to the technology? The recipient never receives the full design file, only the finished print on his printer.
Wegner says he plans an open Beta launch of Sendshapes.com in October 2013.
He adds that the initial core service of Sendshapes.com won't be the ultimate target for the company.
"Our focus is not directed at end customers. Sendshapes is a sandbox to experiment with ideas," Wegner said. "Our real focus is on an API which will enable other marketplaces and content owners to distribute their designs for pay-to-print without having to build the functionality. Imagine Shapeways or Disney integrating this feature to distribute designs, instead of finished products?"
It's the results of that API work that Wegner is counting on to pay immediate dividends, but it too is just a piece of the puzzle for him.
"It doesn't end with the API, it's just the start. We've got a strong product pipeline that addresses all the needs that are holding back distributed manufacturing," Wegner says. "Keep your eyes peeled."
At this point the collision of intellectual property rights holders and everyone else seems more theoretical than real. Shapeways CEO, Pete Weijmarshausen, said his company, a service bureau of 3D print made-to-order products based on files uploaded by users, has only had a total of five requests to remove items from the site in this calendar year. He added that the number of takedown requests was about the same in all of 2012.