There has been quite a lot of hype and concern over the past several weeks as the ‘Liberator’, the world’s first entirely 3D-printed gun, came to light via the internet. Already, cheaper and more sophisticated 3D-printed guns have emerged, as well as 3D-printed shotgun slugs.  Even the NSW Police Force has recently purchased a $1,700 consumer-grade 3D printer to test the viability and effectiveness of the inexpensive Liberator (verdict: using the weapon can be fatal to both the operator and intended target).

However, everything is not all doom and gloom.  Products emerging from 3D printers are limited only by the imagination and the technology has the potential to shift the paradigm for all manufacturers, service providers and consumers.

What is 3D printing?

Basically, a 3D printer allows for the creation of a three-dimensional object from a digital model (virtual blueprints). The digital model is rendered in component ‘slices’ (cross-sections) and the printer ‘prints’ material in a given layer thickness as successive/sequential slices, eventually rendering the desired object.

Impact

Development of 3D printers over the years has substantially increased accessibility to these printers as the price has dropped by several orders of magnitude. Relatively sophisticated printers can be purchased at price points starting at around $500. The printers are today well within reach of DIYers and hobbyists alike.

Currently, the speed (or lack thereof) of 3D printers precludes their use as a tool for mass production of products. Going forward, however, the area where 3D printers may very well have a disruptive impact is in prototyping and customisation services. 3D printing challenges the notions of economies of scale as it is as cheap to produce single items as it is to produce thousands.

The possibilities for 3D printing are limitless. The technology can be adapted for use in purely artistic applications, biotechnology and tissue engineering (constructing replacement bones or organs), creating chemical compounds, or even in food services (a 3D-printed pizza?).

Don’t forget about IP

The technologies and creativity associated with 3D printing can involve many aspects of intellectual property, including patents, trade marks, copyright and design.