TREND: The capacity of 3D printing technology to create information-based physical objects using digital blueprints will revolutionise the concept of “access to information”.

Widespread adoption of 3D printing technology will revolutionise the concept of “access to information” given its capacity to create information-based physical objects using digital blueprints and designs. Alongside its transformative impact on manufacturing (by drastically increasing efficiency and reducing costs) there are also other significant implications in terms of increased counterfeiting/ intellectual property infringement. 

Some argue that in light of the dramatic consequences for music copyright as a result of the convergence of the Internet, digitised music and media players, 3D printing technology may have similar implications for artistic copyright, design right, trademarks and patents, but in a rather more diverse legal framework (The Intellectual Property Implications of Low-Cost 3D Printing, 2010, page 29).

A 2011 Study by the Atlantic Council “Could 3D Printing Change the World” contended that 3D printing could introduce both a manufacturing revolution and a fundamental shift to the global economy (see page 12). The report identifies a broad range of potential impacts, including increased productivity in ageing societies (as a result of reduced labour requirements and health costs), low-cost on demand local production of products in the developing world (reducing transport costs and waste), the reduction of global economic imbalances (the localisation of production limits reliance on imports), the creation of new industries and professions, as well as trillions of dollars of new income for businesses based both on innovative products and services – as well as the legal fees associated with intellectual property dispute and resolution services (Ibid).

The 2012 study from the US National Intelligence Council “Global Trends 2030” (see page 87) adopts both a positive yet also cautionary stance:

New manufacturing and automation technologies such as additive manufacturing (3D printing) and robotics have the potential to change work patterns in both the developing and developed worlds. In developed countries these technologies will improve productivity, address labor constraints, and diminish the need for outsourcing, especially if reducing the length of supply chains brings clear benefits. Nevertheless, such technologies could still have a similar effect as outsourcing: they could make more low- and semi-skilled manufacturing workers in developed economies redundant, exacerbating domestic inequalities. For developing economies, particularly Asian ones, the new technologies will stimulate new manufacturing capabilities and further increase the competitiveness of Asian manufacturers and suppliers.

In May 2012 the charity techfortrade launched the 3D4D challenge offering a $100,000 prize for innovative projects which leverage 3D printing technologies that foster collaboration around social and economic issues in the developing world. The winning project (WOOF) enables waste plastic (from bottles for example) to be used as the raw material for 3D printing. This presents an opportunity to manufacture a wide range of low cost products from waste plastic including toilets and water collectors (Economist November 2012). Trials to address local issues in water and sanitation will begin in Mexico during 2013 in association with the NGO Water for Humans.