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Are We Really on the Verge of a Napster-fication of Physical Objects?

3-D printing technology is evolving quickly, but not that quickly.
February 25, 2013

Buzz around 3-D printing went mainstream earlier this month when President Obama hyped the technology in the State of the Union address.

The technology is indeed advancing quickly, the price of printing things is falling and it’s easy to imagine a future in which consumer 3-D printers are ubiquitous. A recent piece at NPR did just that, looking forward to potential copyright fights, which are just now starting to arise and are likely to get thornier. In the article, Clay Lambert, who runs the Menlo Park Techshop, a “playground for creativity” for designers and tinkerers, compared today’s trends in 3-D printing to music file sharing and the Napster era: “We are at the point now with physical objects that we were at with MP3s a decade ago,” he says.

ReadWrite’s John Paul Titlow said a similar thing his own recent article on the topic:

“Before long, many of us will be able to print physical objects as easily as we once burned DVDs. And just as the Internet made trading MP3 music files and ripped movies a breeze, downloading 3-D images to print on your shiny new MakerBot printer will be as easy as torrenting The Hurt Locker.”

Well, maybe some objects. As we’ve pointed out here before, most consumer 3-D printers can only work with a limited range of materials, and are far from able to perform the sophisticated manufacturing processes that lead to many of our favorite products (See: “What Yoda Taught Me About 3-D Printing” and “The Difference Between Makers and Manufacturers”). Indeed, the two highest-profile 3-D printing copyright skirmishes so far involve plastic novelty items.

So while enthusiasts can print and share designs for things like Tintin’s cartoon moon rocket and Game of Thrones inspired iPhone docks, the catalog of 3-D-printable objects is small, especially when compared to the trove of music that became available for free thanks to MP3s and file sharing.

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