3D printer manufactured by Z Corporation in Sweden

Engineers at the Vienna Institute of Technology have created the world’s smallest 3D printer.  This is the first version of a 3D printer that could possibly be sold as a consumer product for people to print 3D objects for themselves.

What exactly is 3D printing?  A 3D printer is a device that, given the right instructions, can produce any object you want.  3D printing uses additive manufacturing: objects are built layer by layer, based on a template created by design software.  The printer lays down a thin layer of plastic, resin, or other metals. Once that layer hardens, it adds another, and this process continues until the object is complete.  Right now, 3D printing systems are not able to produce a fully finished product.  Usually, there are extra steps required, such as removing extra supports from the product that is printed.  Despite this, the technology is exciting because it allows for objects such as bicycle frames, aircraft parts, and panels for cars to be created without using a factory.  Currently, only hobbyists, certain academics, and a few industrial niches have 3D printers.  However, the technology is spreading quickly, just as computers did in the late 1970s.  Today, a basic 3D printer costs less than a laser printer did in 1985.

There are various advantages and disadvantages to 3D printing.  The additive manufacturing approach will virtually eliminate production lines because products will be made at home.  This means that the number of jobs in factories would decrease, which is probably not appealing in today’s economy.  However, additive manufacturing reduces waste because far less material would be used to create products.  It  also increases innovation and allows for efficient designs because an item can be made quickly (and in a cost effective way) and then again when the design has been improved.

This technology will also have implications for intellectual property law.  Digital design files that are sent to a printer will be easy to duplicate and distribute (just like it has been in the music industry).  Thus, if the design for a new toy or shoe gets pirated and distributed on the Internet, there would be a much greater chance of intellectual property infringement.  Surely there will be IP lawsuits surrounding 3D printer use and even how the existing IP laws should be applied.  If the IP laws are stricter, it could discourage creativity and innovation.  On the other hand, relaxed IP laws would make the illegal distribution of design files easier.  While 3D printers are not yet ready for full consumer use, lawyers should get ready for their realistic effects on IP law.

– Sophia Behnia

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