A copyright mess in 3D
There isn’t a week that passes-by without new 3D printing claims (faster, cheaper, more precise, more materials capabilities, more volume capacity, more colours etc…) and at any given time, crowd-funding sites such as KickStarter and IndieGogo typically host dozens of new 3D printer concepts to come.
But before you can print, you need a 3D model, easy for the CAD professional in an engineering company, maybe less obvious for the mere consumer. But hardware and software are catching up fast in the consumer space.
Reverse-engineering and metrology companies such as Kreon or Creaform Inc. have been offering professional-grade handheld 3D scanners for a while.
Last May, Creaform was announcing its Go!SCAN 3D handheld white-light 3D scanner together with VXmodel, a 3D scan-to-print software module that cleans up the 3D meshes and prepares them for print. Of course, this type of professional-grade instruments (with an accuracy of up to 0.1mm and full-colour capture) is too expensive for consumer applications.
Creaform’s Go!SCAN 3D handheld white-light 3D scanner.
In the race of additive manufacturing and 3D scanning, 3D Systems who is active in the professional market is also addressing consumer needs with the recently released iSense 3D Scanner, an add-on scanner reselling for just under USD 500 that clips to the iPad Air, iPad mini or iPad 4 and promises users easy access to 3D selfies (with direct upload options to Cubify, the company’s consumer hub for 3D printing).
3D Systems’ iSense 3D Scanner.
A number of other low-cost 3D scanners are being marketed or under development, such as Fuel3D’s handheld scanner which was successfully funded through a Kickstarter campaign. Planned for release in 2015 for less than a thousand dollars, the point-and-shoot 3D imaging system will capture the shape and colour information of objects at a resolution of around 0.350mm, processing the files within seconds for on-screen manipulation before 3D printing.
Fuel3D’s handheld scanner.
But standalone solutions are not your only option as a consumer. Hewlett-Packard who recently made big news with its entry in the 3D printers market (claiming much faster printing speeds on its professional-grade multi-agent HP MultiJet Fusion thermal inkjet 3D printer), is now integrating a 3D scanner to its latest PC offering, the Sprout.
HP’s Sprout combines PC and 3D scanner in one portable work station.
The Sprout features a depth sensor, a high-resolution camera and a projector for 3-D scanning and imaging, together with a special sensing mat. It allows users to seamlessly integrate real-world objects into their digital workspace.
At last consumer electronics show (CES), Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich demonstrated the company’s RealSense 3D gesture camera integrated into a tablet, so it could be used to effectively perform real-time 3D scanning. The company plans to have the technology in tablets from 2015 onwards and may be pushing it into smartphones.
Even before you get to buy dedicated hardware, or before 3D scanners become mainstream, you can already turn your smartphone into a 3D scanner using apps like AutoDesk’s free 123D Catch or Replica Labs’ Rendor.
While the former is free (enticing users to buy CAD file manipulation software), the latter allows you to create a 3D scan of almost anything by taking surround video (the object being positioned on a specially printed paper grid for reference) and then sending the files to the Rendor servers for processing (for a small fee).
When cheap 3D scanners and printers meet
So as prices come down, what will happen when consumers will be able to 3D scan any gadget they like and replicate it through a low-cost 3D printing service (think of all the portals out there such as i.materialise.com, www.shapeways.com or Cubify’s Design Feed) at a better rate than buying the original product?
Copying is bad, and typically, you would get sued for infringing copyrights if you were caught replicating and reselling items originally designed by someone else.
But what happens if as a consumer you do it for your own good, simply because you want to change the colour, the material, or add a minor personalized touch to what you’ve seen in a shop?
Sooner than later, you’ll find 3D copy shops in most cities, ready to print on demand whatever CAD files you throw at them. For bigger and larger objects, you could probably find your way around the limitations of today’s small printers by parsing the CAD files into easy-to-assemble modular pieces, very much like the puzzle-chair demonstrated by Dutch designer Joris Laarman with his Bits&Parts project.
The project’s aim is to design customizable and fully recyclable furniture (at the end of life, the used furniture could be molten and made into pellets and wire for new 3D printing), to be produced locally through fully automated mass digital fabrication units. The ultimate goal would be for consumers to stream catalogue parts from the cloud to 3D printer farms (for reasonable throughput).
The likes of Shapeways and i.materialise offer well-equipped and well-staffed 3D printing centres with a real expertise, their business models revolve around printing your personal designs (with engineering help as a service) and allowing anyone to sell their designs (as 3D products printed on demand).
As for intellectual property rights, no company will check for the origins of the CAD files, whether they come from a scanned object or whether they are modified files from someone else’s original design. In fact, an easy and simple disclaimer consists in assuming that the persons who upload a 3D model for print are the rightful owners of the IP (they only remove the conflictual IP if the rightful owner comes by and happens to notice the copyright infringement).
Now, even if you are not reselling a gadget that you took time to scan and model for your own needs, potentially thousands or even hundreds of thousands of consumers creating their unique personalized copies could potentially represent quite a loss for a traditional business (producing toys or whatever).
Would there be a way to register CAD contours and patterns (with volumetric and density signatures) against which printing shops could match submitted designs? And could there be a matching percentage (between two shapes or collections of data points) above which one CAD file owner could sue another?
Discussing this matter with Creaform’s Product Director, François Leclerc, I was amazed at the lack of solutions in this nascent industry.
“There are currently no way to tag 3D scans or CAD files, and even if they were, the tags could easily be lost upon modifying and resaving the file”, explained Leclerc.
“In fact, no one would want to have any limitations on the manipulation of the data sets they acquire with a 3D scanner”, he added, “most of our customers use the technology to design custom fit solutions on existing products, or to replicate a missing or broken part during a restoration project, or simply to acquire CAD data on legacy products for which they only have a clay model or the original mold”.
Although Creaform doesn’t address the consumer market, Leclerc’s understanding is that global manufacturing will have to evolve and adapt to this new technology. Today’s copyright law already applies, just like for MP3 files and software in general, but it will just become more difficult to enforce as the data manipulation tools become mainstream.
When becoming cheap enough, 3D scanning and printing technologies may encourage some original equipment manufacturers to lease CAD files rather than produce the actual goods in far flung countries.
At least, some complex equipment vendors may retain their market by offering full customization and original replacement part CAD files for their products, rather than passively witness consumers grab their designs or fix broken bits in an amateurish way.
You may even expect new forms of distributed manufacturing with catalogues of compatible parts for ready-to-assemble 3D furniture and objects. Who knows if specific assembly standards will pop up, with CAD add-ons enabling consumers to plug different files together and assemble whatever shapes printed separately).
With 3D printing services in the neighbourhood (understand local pick up or cheap delivery fees), will consumers’ quest for customization re-shore manufacturing and initiate the collapse of large manufacturing centres in Asia? Will it become cheaper to operate in Europe?
For sure, original makers will always argue that materials and processes are not the same, and only they will ensure the original design quality, but in some cases, copycats could reverse the argument by upgrading the original materials and colours, or even making multi-material 3D prints when the original good may be cast from only one material.
So it seems there is only one roadmap to success, embracing and integrating 3D printing in volume manufacture to enable mass customization as a selling argument. Or even better, make customization your competitive advantage, just like new York City-based start-up Normal – www.nrml.com , which offers to 3D-print your headphones to a custom fit based on a series of photos of your ear cavities taken through its smartphone app.