3D printing may seem surprisingly straightforward, but there are moral, business and technical issues that must be addressed before it becomes a part of everyday life.
While they may be predicted to disrupt current manufacturing models, 3D printing technologies are slowly beginning to infiltrate the consumer market. Makerbot was the first 3D printing manufacturer to bring out a sub-£1,000 model. Most recently, high-street retailer Maplin has been selling a 3D printer for only £700.
However, the term 3D printing conjures up images that the technology will be as simple to use as a normal inkjet or laser printer. This is far from the truth. Firstly, you will be dealing with the kind of issues that anyone has to deal with when creating solid objects. This will, among other things, require a significant amount of knowledge of computer-aided design (CAD) principles, which will require the user to invest time in developing their ideas into 3D objects that they intend to commercialise or use for personal consumption.
Nevertheless, 3D printing has captured the imagination of many would-be designers. Inventors can now see an easy avenue into bringing their designs and inventions to life in order to demonstrate them to the world, or to simply create one-off products for themselves which would never have mass market appeal.
Crowd-funding website Kick Starter is full of examples of designers and inventors who have created interesting devices and designs using some form of 3D printing. The website is eagerly touting these to get further funding to commercialise these products.
The Web is also awash with novices' attempts to create objects from computer-aided designs which do not work. They flop, warp or just look plain weird.
There are other minefields to consider for the industry as a whole. What is stopping somebody from scanning an existing design and creating a 3D CAD file from an object that is copyright, trademark or IP (intellectual property) protected? Would the organisation or person doing the actual printing find themselves liable for some form of IP infringement?
Contending with immorality
Gun advocate Cody Wilson created an open-source gun design that could be printed with an additive printing method. The design is now out there in the public domain and available on file-sharing websites among other illegal software and pirated media content.
"We are familiar with the designs of the open-source 3D printable guns, and we can easily spot them," says Nick Allen, founder of 3D Print UK, a 3D print bureau service based in South London.
Haydn Insley, manager of Fablab Manchester, a facility where anyone can be trained in and use 3D printing equipment, points out that users at his facility are "closely monitored" for health and safety reasons.
There are other moral issues to contend with. For instance, the most unusual object that Allen has been asked to reproduce was a user-designed avatar from the online virtual world 'Second Life' which had six penises.
In the grand scheme of things, when you consider the firearm designs out in the world, Allen's company agreed that printing such an object for a user's personal consumption was acceptable.
It's possible, however, that these unusual requests may become more commonplace. Popular 3D-printing file-sharing site www.3Dprinter-world.com states clearly on its usage policy that designs that are deemed 'not safe for work' are not acceptable. It cites a hypothetical example of "a 3D printable statue of a naked female contortionist seen from a compromising angle".
Another matter of obvious legal concern is that 3D printers may allow people to easily and secretly duplicate patented and copyrighted objects. A person could print up copies of toys, miniatures (for games such as Dungeons and Dragons) and parts. Thus, 3D printing at home will give people the ability to do with objects what they have been doing with music, movies and software, namely engaging in 'solid piracy' or '3D piracy'.
In the case of printing an object, a person is not stealing the physical object from the manufacturer. If one were to print a copy of a copyrighted action figure, for example, this is rather different from going to a toy shop and shoplifting that miniature.
Beatriz San Martin, a partner at law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse, points out that there could be "a bit of a grey area" when copying a component as the law has not yet been tested in relation to 3D printing.
"If you produce an exact copy of an action figure, then you are breaching copyright, 'but if you create a spare part for a broken figure that 'may' breach copyright if the originator's business model included repairing action figures themselves as part of their business model."
In practice, it would be rare for a toy company to bring action against someone who uses a 3D printer to create a spare part and, points out 3D Print UK's Allen, there are far more economical ways to repair an action figure.
In the medium-term, rather than consumers buying 3D printers to use at home it is far more likely that consumers will be using a 3D print bureau service or their local fabrication laboratory.
Fab labs are small-scale workshops equipped with computer-controlled tools including, but not limited to, 3D printing equipment that can make almost anything from a digital design easily and with assistance on hand. Fab labs were developed in US by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and there are now more 250 around the world.
The UK's first Fab Lab opened in Manchester in March 2010 and is owned by The Manufacturing Institute. The services they offer are low cost in comparison to traditional tooling methods and ideal for producing prototypes or bespoke items unsuitable for mass production.
Manchester's Fab Lab has over 1,500 registered users. During the week, the centre helps businesses to prototype and design products. But over the weekend it is open to anyone to develop designs on the understanding that these are open source.
"Part of a user's commitment is to be prepared to share the object throughout the fab lab network," explains Insley.
Users are encouraged to document their designs and create instructions so that others around the world can recreate the objects using 3D printing technology.
Getting to grips with 3D
The media hype would suggest that virtually anything can be printed on a sub-£1,000 3D printer, but this is not the case. "I spend a lot of my time advising clients on how to create designs that are 3D printable," explains Allen.
Additionally, CAD software can be very expensive. A single user license for Autocad 2014 will set you back more than '4,000. However, there is open source and less expensive software available.
Even so, you will require knowledge of the various materials and 3D printers to make sure that your design will be printable by a certain device. This is where the guidance of bureau services such as 3D Print UK or the technicians at your local fab lab will come in handy.
Allen is also keen to temper the ambitions of would-be entrepreneurs who may think that 3D printers could replace traditional manufacturing. He says this does not make sense if you want to mass manufacture.
"Just because you're a good cook doesn't mean that you would be able to run a kitchen in a busy restaurant," is his apt analogy. "3D printing is great for creating a proof-of-concept product, but the design would have to be completely re-engineered for mass manufacturing. We constantly have to educate clients to this important fact."
Thus it will be a while before 3D printers have a significant impact on existing manufacturing models. Manufacturers will still be making products on a conventional production line that has not really changed massively in the past hundred years or so.
With the increase in fab labs and 3D print bureau services available to those who may not have conventional engineering skills, it's not just the technical skills that the industry will have to contend with. Moral and legal issues will also be encountered by these hobbyist inventors who will not have access to expensive lawyers.
In the same way consumers are being educated the hard way through legal threats on the problems with downloading music and video files, they may find similar legal threats if they think they can just scan in a model of their favourite action hero and print it at their local store or at home.