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Shady Illuminations

All I Want for Christmas Is a 3D Printer

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  John looks at the dark side of 3D printing.  

All want for Christmas a 3D printer. It would be perfect for my lifestyle: I want to have stuff, but I don’t want to have to leave my house to get it—or have UPS or FedEx drivers come to my house. If I could just download designs and print up all the shoes and hammers and sex toys I need, I’d be far less grumpy. The only problem is, the cheap ones aren’t good enough and the ones that might meet my high standards are like yikes.

So that 3D printer won’t be appearing under my tree this year, because the technology is currently too expensive. I admit I said the same thing about Añejo Tequila last year, and I bought it anyway. Sometimes holiday traditions trump the resolutions. But I really mean it about 3D printers. The price needs to come down and the capabilities need to go up.

Both of these things would happen quickly if the market asked for them loudly enough. Massive demand would bring in economies of scale, driving down costs, and would also result in fierce competition that would in turn bring about rapid growth in features and capabilities. Demand isn’t strong yet, so 3D printing is a technology, but it’s not yet a market. But that may change sooner rather than later. All that’s needed, after all, is a killer app.

And boy howdie, if any market ever had a killer app, it’s the 3D printer market. A literal killer app. Home-made guns. And they exist. They’re already being printed today. Once the word gets out, I think there just might be a spike in the demand for 3D printers in certain circles.

Now, some might feel that the ability for every terrorist, druglord, vigilante, or disgruntled postal worker to print themselves a gun or two or ten in the privacy of their own home is a bad thing. And those people are free to feel that way, but their feelings are irrelevant. The glock is out of the bottle, the colt has bolted the stable.

The desktop armory boom could play out much like the desktop publishing boom, only with more boom. The invention of the laser printer made everyone a publisher. Or maybe it was the invention of the web. And the camera in the phone made everyone a photojournalist. Anyway, now we’re all press, and since freedom of the press belongs to him who owns the press, this is a case of technology bringing about the democratization of the First Amendment.

The line “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” isn’t an exact parallel to “freedom of the press belongs to him who owns the press,” but it’s close. 3D printers look like the technology that will democratize the Second Amendment. And when we can all be gun shops, gun laws will become unenforceable. No doubt attempts will be made to suppress gun designs, but they will fail.

Some will consider this good news. Some will consider it a really scary prospect. I find it interesting. So that’s the first point I wanted to make about 3D printers. The technology already has a killer app, and it’s a real killer.

But 3D printers will be used to produce lots of things other than guns. And a lot of those things will hurt people, too. Sometimes products hurt people due to defects in their designs. Or to inadequate documentation. Or to overestimating the intelligence of the consumer. We’re a litigious society, and it’s unreasonable to expect 3D printing to be immune to product liability lawsuits.

When the product hurts you, you sue the manufacturer. If your car blew up in a 5 mph collision, you sue. If the dog chewed up the squeaky toy and swallowed the squeaker, you sue. If the cold medicine, in combination with your martini habit, destroyed your liver, you sue. If your 3D printer-generated coffeemaker made the coffee too hot and it burned your lip, you sue.

But wait a minute, with 3D printing, aren’t you, the consumer, also the manufacturer? And if you are the manufacturer, aren’t you responsible for the product you built (or printed)? Wouldn’t you have to sue yourself?

No. That’s not how it will be interpreted by the courts. You can’t print products from a 3D printer without the data, which is to say CAD design, which is to say software, so you’ll sue the author of the software. If the product was badly designed, that’s not your fault, it’s the fault of the person who wrote the software.

Suing over software that hurts you is nothing new, of course. But there is a non-trivial difference with 3D printing. A 3D printer design is software that implies (entails?) some physical object. It’s software that can fall on your toe and break it. So that’s the second point I wanted to make about 3D printers. There will be 3D printer product liability lawsuits.

But there’s another difference between hardware and software: nobody designs and manufactures and distributes a hardware product for free. But lots of people write software and give it away. Can the user of a 3D printer download some free CAD design for some product, print it, drop it on his foot, and sue the author of the software?

It’s a trick question, of course. In America, anybody can sue anybody over anything. And defending against even a groundless lawsuit can bankrupt a person. So yes, obviously. I just wanted to point out that this little gift that will start appearing under the Christmas tree if not this year then probably next year has some really interesting implications.

Merry Christmas!

John Shade was born under a cloud in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. His favorite holiday is the Winter Solstice. Follow John on Twitter, send him your feedback, or discuss the article in the magazine forum.