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A Change in Commerce: Open-Source 3D Manufacturing

3D printed parts are going to become super common in the near future. But where does the law and ethics come into play?

In Shelly’s awesome post on 3D printing,he hints at a future where spare parts will live on files and not shelves.

It completely upsets our notion of manufacturing, where commodities are tangible objects. Physical would become virtual. The question would then become: open-source or closed-source?

What’s the Difference?

Open-source software and application-development tools are available to anyone for free over the web. Could open-source CAD/CAM files be the same? (There are already plenty of free designs available online at sites like Thingiverse.com.)

As a real-world example, let’s take a look at the bicycle manufacturing industry. It’s an industry that uses the latest materials, manufacturing and design principles and techniques. High-end carbon fiber bicycles today are works of engineering art, the same as Formula 1 cars or MotoGP motorcycles or fighter jets, etc.

Bike makers have long been on the leading edge of design and manufacture—from the days of steel bikes to those of aluminum, titanium, scandium and carbon. There’s every reason to think bike manufacturers will turn to 3D printing, especially if they can make it work with carbon.

The way things are now, bike and bike-part makers build a certain number of frames, cranksets, brakes, derailleurs, shifters, handlebars, seats…

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3D Printed Parts 3D printed parts like these are going to become super common in the near future. But where does the law and ethics come into play?

Shopping: Now a Whole New Experience

When I need a part, I have to find one that’s already built and sitting on a shelf somewhere. With 3D printing, though, things would be totally different. There may be an already-built part lying around, but more likely I’d have to get the part printed.

So, how will that work? Will manufacturers want to do all the actual printing themselves? Will they sell the plans for customer-DIY printing? Will they do both? Will they try to keep the plans themselves but have someone illegally leak them to the public anyway?

If it’s anything like digital entertainment today, I’ll probably have to buy the CAD/CAM file for the part (or combination of parts) and get it printed myself.

Conceivably, I would send the file to a 3D printing house, probably one that specialized in bike parts.

(I don’t imagine it’ll be a simple trip down to Kinko’s to print everything. Seems like material and object specialists would pop up. I can imagine specialty shops all over, using different carbon grades, methods, etc.)

When the part’s printed, the printing house would send it to me (from wherever in the world they are).

Legality and Ethics

But what happens next? What if my buddy needs the same part or just wants to upgrade? What’s to stop me from emailing him the CAD/CAM file?

Enter open source versus closed source. And piracy and all the rest.

We’ll have to figure it out as we go. Designers will have to decide how they want to make money off their 3D plans. Per plan? Through subscriptions to the site? Through advertising?

Influencing the decision will, of course, be digital piracy. (Which, if we’re being honest, we’ve all probably taken advantage of.)

Luckily (sort of), the software and entertainment industries are blazing a path on digital property transactions for the future. Unluckily (sort of), they’re still working on it.

More Stories By Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the host of NBC Universal’s Live Digital with Shelly Palmer, a weekly half-hour television show about living and working in a digital world. He is Fox 5′s (WNYW-TV New York) Tech Expert and the host of United Stations Radio Network’s, MediaBytes, a daily syndicated radio report that features insightful commentary and a unique insiders take on the biggest stories in technology, media, and entertainment.

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