Seemingly moments after an American business interest announced its intent to make available, and to print and test, an entirely 3D-printed plastic firearm, the United States government stepped in to crush the notion of freely available, freely printable weapons. Never mind that you have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms; never mind that the government has no authority to control the possession of information in a society ostensibly protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The genie may have been out of the bottle, but the jackbooted masters who even now stockpile ammunition (in anticipation of putting down unrest you haven’t yet imagined) were and are determined to stuff that genie back where it came from. The problem is, at it so often has been and will be, one of control. Those in charge can’t have just anybody gaining access to means of physically resisting government tyranny. But this isn’t only a question of weapons. What sort of society would we live in if anybody can have any object he or she desires … as long as that person has access to a 3D printer and to a downloaded design file?
“Imagine having an idea, sketching it on paper, bringing it to a store and seeing that drawing turned into a physical object in a matter of hours,” writes Elizabeth Lee. “This is now possible for the average consumer with the help of 3D printers. These machines were once only used by universities and big corporations, but now, stores with 3D printing services are popping up around the United States for anyone who wants to see an idea become reality.”
As explained previously in Technocracy, 3D printers use digital models to “print” layers of plastic to create three-dimensional shapes. This is an “additive” process, as opposed to traditional machining (in which “subtractive” processes are used to remove material, such as cutting a blade from a metal blank). The 3D printer is “fed” by spools of plastic that it then utilizes in crafting the plastic components of your choosing, using 3D models that you either create or download from available sources. The popularity of 3D printing has exploded recently because the price of the printers has dropped, making them accessible to average citizens.
As the cost of the equipment decreases and citizens become more aware of it, demand will rise. As it does, service providers like your local UPS Store will start to offer 3D printing just like they now offer copying and other customer services. Chances are good, if 3D printers follow the pattern of other office equipment now proliferating in homes, that costs will continue to go down. As they do, more individual households will acquire one for home use. A laser printer was once a thing of wonder, too costly for all but large businesses to maintain and run. Today countless homes boast desktop versions of these devices. So it will be with 3D printing.
Or will it?
Signe Brewster, writing in Gigacam, seems to think so. Brewster quotes University of Texas-Austin Dave Perell, who says students showed up on campus this year with previous 3D printing experience – something that had never happened before. Perell firmly believes the technology will integrate into society. Speaking at a San Jose3D printing conference with CIO Scott Crump and CTO Chuck Hull (both of whom work for 3D printing companies), the trio paint an optimistic picture of the technology’s advancement.
“The earliest machines were hulking things,” writes Brewster, “built after Crump, Hull and Perell’s colleague Carl Deckard recognized a weakness in the manufacturing cycles of the time. Hull, for example, was working with UV-curable materials, and wondered if a similar system could be applied to 3D objects. At the time, prototypes were made with plastic injection molding machines. The process was slow, and involved many weeks of waiting for each new iteration of a prototype. … [Even as some industries moved on], the automotive industry was one of the earliest embracers of 3D printing. The car companies were demanding, which Hull said pushed 3D Systems to build a better printer. Crump said Stratasys found its earliest applications among automotive, aerospace and medical companies before expanding into education.”
The growth of 3D printing mirrors the rapid advancement of the Internet. In only a few years, the Internet and the World Wide Web went from a curiosity known only to a select few, to infrastructure we now take for granted (and on which we all depend). But this growth is due in no small part to the relatively unregulated nature of the Internet. Government regulation stifles creativity, advancement and growth, and already, there are indications that the government will have every reason to interfere in 3D printing.
“You wouldn’t steal a car, goes the old anti-piracy warning. But would you print one from The Pirate Bay?” asks Adi Robertson. “… If 3D-printing piracy grows, will companies be tempted to wage war against it by controlling where, when, and how much you can print?”
Robertson’s article highlights corporate attempts to implement Digital Rights Management (DRM) for what is essentially information, not objects. A 3D printing file is not a thing, after all; it is a collection of data that does not become a physical object until combined with the end user’s resources. Historically, it is not businesses that exert control over information. It is governments.
After all, if just anybody can print out any product they can design, whose design they can download, and which they simply need to pay to print, how much regulatory control can a government truly have over what its citizens think, share and do? This has always been the impulse to regulate possession of information and inanimate objects, from banned books to pornography to high-capacity magazines to pirated movies and now printable guns: You cannot make the other fellow toe your line if he doesn’t need your permission to acquire the things he wants.
This is the promise of 3D printing: It liberates the consumer. There are few reasons to trust that Barack Hussein Obama and his ilk will tolerate that liberation … and every reason to fear they won’t.