Mike Chen watched from Earth when his company’s 3D printer was rocketed to the International Space Station, destined to produce the first objects manufactured in space. The September launch, in Chen’s mind, was no marketing gimmick. The chief strategy officer for Made In Space felt this was Step 1 in overcoming a technological lull he explained to an audience in Bellevue a month prior.
“We’re in a paradigm where we build everything here, then haul it to space,” Chen said at the 3D Printer World Expo in Bellevue. “There’s a very simple solution for that — build it there, not here. The technology making that possible is 3D printing.”
Chen’s company looks at 3D printing through a galactic lens, but he alluded to another paradigm shift already occurring on Earth.
“Think about how photo and music sharing has changed with the Internet,” Chen told the Bellevue crowd. “That’s what we’re about to see with physical objects. … We can email objects, can rapidly create new objects like we create new files. And we’re just at the beginning.”
Disruption talk is often the fodder of the tech-conference rally, but Chen’s proclamation was more sincere than most. Experts believe 3D printing, more than any innovation since perhaps the Internet, has the potential to not just change companies, but entire industries. The technology’s convenience, Star Trek-esque futurism, and legal murkiness could upend the commercial and manufacturing realm, and Eastside companies are embracing it.
The rhetoric around 3D printing is magnificent but not necessarily exorbitant. The cycle usually goes as follows: Someone in Industry X decides to print a 3D object, it works, and Industry X pros start frothing at the mouth about the possibilities 3D printing enables. This has happened in the medical realm (printed organs and tissues, jawbones, skull pieces, surgical tools), food (ornate structures made of chocolate, sugar, pasta, and purees of vegetables, fruits, and meats), fashion (unfathomably intricate dresses, shoes, and jewelry), consumer electronics (more iPhone cases than you can imagine), art (think M.C. Escher in three dimensions), and other industries. People are printing guitars, showerheads, nuts and bolts, jet engines, old car parts, earbuds, and skateboards. If there’s a printer big enough to do it, there’s no reason to think it can’t be printed.
Eastside companies are welcoming the technology. At Nytec’s Product Innovation Center in Kirkland, clients are able to produce a physical prototype before spending a penny on manufacturing capital or taking the time to hand-make a model.
“If you need to see what’s inside your head … 3D printing’s the best way to do it, and it’s the fastest way to do it besides just putting it on a computer screen,” says Darryl Cummins, who oversees 3D prototyping for Nytec. “But that’s the point. We’ve been able to (build it on a screen) for years. Actually putting it into your hand is everything.”
USCutter, a Redmond-based online retailer that specializes in signage materials and equipment, initially began using 3D printing to produce some hard-to-find parts for clients. After realizing the printers were just as useful to the customer service department as they would be to R&D, USCutter decided to start selling Leapfrog brand printers that range from $1,900 to $9,700.
What started as a side project is now expected to be a multimillion-dollar revenue stream, says marketing director John Williams. USCutters’ decision to start selling the printers is predicated on a simple notion — the equipment will become a widespread appliance used by professionals and hobbyists alike.
“This is something that is business-ready,” says Williams. “It’s good that they’re shooting them into space, but consider bringing one into your business. Find some reason that it would bring some ROI, and then you’ll be surprised with all the other things it will do for you.”
Microsoft is also predicting widespread adoption of 3D printing, and it’s preparing accordingly. While the company has enterprise users in mind, its main focus is ease of use for the hobbyist. This is most evident in its 3D Builder app, which allows those with little to no CAD experience to design a printable object.
“We want to make a simple user experience,” says Emmett Lalish, an engineer in Microsoft’s 3D printing division. “We don’t want folks to be afraid of 3D printing — it’s not just for engineers. We want everyone to be able to do this.”
Law firms are starting to prepare for a groundswell. As Chen mentioned, 3D printing allows physical objects to be shared digitally just like music was in the late ’90s and early ’00s, a development that caused a legal firestorm. Though 3D printing isn’t likely to sneak up on society quite as rapidly as peer-to-peer music sharing, it’s still a young industry with plenty of legal unknowns.
“Once a big technological shift happens — like with smartphones, integrated circuits, airplanes, even going back to the sewing machine in the 1800s — it’s usually followed by a patent war of some kind,” says Vann Pearce, a Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in 3D printing. “That’s not a new phenomenon. That’s happened numerous times since the 1800s as new, disruptive technologies become widespread and popular.”
There are few legal precedents applicable to the 3D printing technology, as much of U.S. patent law was written during the Industrial Revolution. File sharing could also pose an issue, though Pearce doesn’t expect a Napster-type legal blowup.
Thingiverse, a popular file-sharing site hosted by printer manufacturer MakerBot, has policies against intellectual property violations and removes infringing plans. But as the technology becomes more pervasive, it will be quite easy for someone to upload and share patent-protected or copyrighted objects on one of the many file-sharing sites that are sure to arise. If those sites don’t police as strictly as Thingiverse, or if they openly allow illegal plans, protected objects could be printed by millions of users. Furthermore, Pearce says printing parts for repairs — the act that started USCutter’s involvement in 3D printing — is a gray area regulated by case law from the 1950s.
“Existing laws that weren’t designed with 3D printing in mind are going to become stressed,” Pearce says, “and it’s going to be difficult to figure out how patent law that’s geared toward traditional, Industrial Revolution-type manufacturing processes, how is that going to be applied to 3D printing? Big changes, I think, are going to happen over the next 10 to 20 years.”
Legal uncertainty isn’t keeping Eastside companies from embracingthe technology.
“You’re going to have to rethink the way you engineer and design things,” says Steve Olsson, head of Microsoft’s 3D printing unit. “Get this stuff in the hands of today’s school kids, and they’re the ones who will change the industry.”