Of all the technology featured at CES this week, the most exciting is 3D printing. The possibilities of this rapidly maturing technology are nearly limitless.
Last year the possibilities started to become realities.
In 2014 we saw the rise of several groups starting to print prosthetics for a variety of communities. Prosthetics are deeply personal to their users and are typically very expensive. The unfortunately realities of health care in some countries mean that people who need prosthetics might not always get them.
This technology is making an impact off world as well.
The International Space Station (ISS) now has an experimental 3D printer installed. The astronauts on-board recently needed a special socket wrench. The ground team designed and tested the part on Earth and then emailed the design files to the ISS where the socket wrench was successfully printed and assembled.
These cases might seem isolated but they are a glimpse into how useful this technology will be as it becomes more widespread.
This year also brought new efforts to make 3D printers more accessible. UPS now offers 3D printing services at some of its US locations and now the Royal Mail in the UK has followed suit. Local libraries and maker spaces are also rolling out 3D printing services. This is important as 3D printing has network effects. The more people are using and sharing their designs, the better.
And that’s where we come back around to security.
Beyond the standard security concerns of any connected device, the primary security concern with 3D printing is around intellectual property.
On its surface, DRM always seems harmless. It’s a way of using technology to enforce intellectual property rights. But we have a laundry list of cases where it’s also restricted users from accessing “valid” content (blocking them from using their devices) and also opened up security holes.
Intellectual property should be respected (the digital world runs on it) but we should not do so at the expense of privacy or security.
In the context of 3D printing, DRM means that 3rd parties would be able to determine what you can or cannot print on a printer. We (society) need to have an in-depth discussion on the issue to ensure that we reached a balanced decision.
This is an issue that Cory Doctorow has covered at length in his writing and in his novel “The Makers” and at speaking engagements. Some of the examples may seem dystopian; the foundations for the future of 3D printing are being laid now.
DRM is the key issue for 3D printing moving forward and we need to make sure we get this right.
We know that the technology can do wonders and that there are a multitude of business models available. How we handle shape files (the patterns used for printing) is going to determine just how widespread 3D printing becomes.
It’s important that we set a strong foundation now so that we can take advantage of everything this technology can offer now and as it matures.
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