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Column: 3D printing raises huge opportunities and challenges for society

Various industries – including motor, aerospace, fashion and toy manufacturing – are embracing 3D printing and pushing boundaries. But what potential challenges might lie ahead for this astonishing technology?

Maureen Daly

US PRESIDENT BARACK Obama declared in his State of the Union Address last year that 3D printing would be used to create jobs in America, referring to an innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio which was once a shuttered warehouse but is now a state-of-the art lab where workers are mastering 3D printing. That day, President Obama launched three more manufacturing hubs, where businesses will partner with Departments of Defence and Energy to turn certain regions into global centres of high-tech jobs.

In May 2013, in its report entitled “Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy”, the McKinsey Global Institute identified 3D printing as one of the evolving technologies that could have massive, economically disruptive impact. It estimates that 3D printing could generate economic impact of $230 billion to $550 billion per year by 2025. While this technology has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, governments around the world still need to address the challenges of 3D printing. There is huge potential for Ireland to lead the way by considering and addressing these challenges.

So what is 3D printing – and what are its benefits?

3D printing is a manufacturing process whereby products are built up, layer by layer, using a range of different materials. The process starts with a three dimensional digital file of the object using CAD (Computer Aided Design) software or by 3D scanning an existing object.

3D printers are growing in sophistication and can create increasingly complex objects, including those with different component parts. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the sales of personal 3D printers grew 200 per cent to 400 per cent every year between 2007 and 2011.

Businesses can benefit in many ways by using 3D printing. For example, bespoke pieces can be produced by purchasing and downloading the appropriate CAD file and then printing it themselves rather than having the part sent by the original manufacturer who may be based overseas. This can reduce costs and remove the need to transport bulky goods around the world.

Potentially 3D printing can address concerns about the waste and environmental impact of manufacturing processes and supply chains by reducing the amount of material wasted and the number of steps required for parts to be produced, assembled, distributed and transported.

Challenges of 3D printing

3D printing brings a number of legal challenges.

For example, it will revolutionise piracy because, once in possession of a 3D printer and the right materials, anyone can become a copier either by acquiring (legitimately or otherwise) the CAD file or by scanning the original object. It will be difficult to differentiate between genuine and counterfeit goods. This is of particular concern in for manufacturers of certain items, such as medical devices because counterfeit products are unlikely to be produced in clean environments or to meet the same safety requirements as the original product.

With the first 3D printed guns having already been test-fired, 3D printing creates a public safety risk as well as a potential security nightmare. Even if legislation was passed banning the 3D printing of weapons, the online distribution of 3D printable files for weapons (similar to the illegal trade in music, movie or software files) will be difficult to control. Governments will need to find ways of controlling such activities.

There are also intellectual property implications for 3D printing. As 3D printing makes copying easier, there is significant potential for infringing a third party’s intellectual property rights. Defining who has legal responsibility for the quality and safety of 3D printed products will also need to be addressed if the market for such products is to flourish. Developing standards will play an important part in that regard as it will instil confidence amongst business and consumers. Standards could apply to the 3D printer, the materials used and/or the digital software and systems that translate designs in to 3D objects. Usually, such standards are developed by business themselves but governments may have to develop such standards if businesses are reluctant to do so.

Industry adoption of 3D printing technology

3D printing is not science fiction. Various industries, like the motor, aerospace, fashion and toy manufacturing industries, are embracing 3D printing technology in order to push the boundaries in their respective fields.

Fashion designers are using the technology to design and produce new collections. The first 3D printed fashion collection debuted on a runway at Amsterdam Fashion Week in 2010 when Dutch fashion designer, Iris van Herpen (former intern of the late great Alexander McQueen) previewed her SS11 collection “Crystallization” which included a 3D printed piece, created in collaboration with the architect Daniel Widrig and MGX.

Recently, the toy company, Hasbro announced a partnership with 3D printing company, 3D Systems to “co-develop and commercialise innovative play printers and platforms” which refers to the entirety of Hasbro’s world-renowned brands.

3D Systems is also working with the confectionery company, Hershey to explore the potential of 3D printed chocolate. Disney has also developed software to turn animated characters into 3D printed mechanical toys. However, some companies such as Lego have expressed concerns about adopting 3D printing, stating recently that it does not see 3D printing as a viable replacement for the moulded LEGO elements as they have very strict demands for the quality, durability and safety of its products.

Innovation

The medical field has also embraced 3D printing technology. In March 2014, Morriston Hospital in Swansea reconstructed the face of a patient who suffered multiple trauma injuries in a motor bike accident in pioneering surgery where 3D printing was used at every stage. While 3D printed implants have previously been used to help correct congenital conditions, the current surgery used custom-printed models, guides, plates and implants to repair injuries months after they were sustained.

An Irish company that is leading the way in paper 3D printing technology is Mcor Technologies Limited which was founded in 2004 by brothers, Dr. Conor MacCormack and Fintan MacCormack.

This home grown business recently struck a deal with the international office supply company, Staples, to launch a new online 3D printing service called “Staples Easy 3D”. The service offers customers low-cost 3D printed products from Staples stores. Customers simply upload electronic files to the Staples Office Centre and pick up the models in their nearby Staples stores, or have them shipped to their address. The service is initially being made available in the Netherlands and Belgium but the intention is to swiftly roll it out to other countries.

What’s next?

With a number of relevant patents due to expire in 2014, there will undoubtedly be an increase in the adoption and development of 3D printing. The opportunities presented by 3D printing are huge but the challenges raised by the technology need to be addressed by governments, legislators and regulators as steps needs to be taken now if the 3D printing is to develop and flourish.

Maureen Daly is Partner and Head of the Technology and Brands Unit at Beauchamps Solicitors. 

Follow Opinion & Insight on Twitter: @TJ_Opinions

Read: The best 3D printers that appeared at CES 2014

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