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Makers of All Things
June 1, 2012 3:26 AM   Subscribe

3D printing can now make replacement jaws, thousands of user-designed widgets, electromechanical computers - but also ATM skimmer fronts, handcuff keys and gun parts. But can you own the shape of a thing? (Previously on the Blue.)
posted by Zarkonnen (40 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
But can you own the shape of a thing?

I really don't mean to be reflexively snarky and cynical, but: I'm sure wealthy organizations with a vested interest in owning such things will find a way to do so.

This is, after all, 21st century America, where you can own the idea for an idea in what amounts to perpetuity.
posted by Sokka shot first at 3:52 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, this won't be the first struggle for control over the means of production.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 3:57 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


With some practice and skill you can probably fabricate convincing plastic fascia for a skimmer by hand with polymer clay. If you want handcuff keys you can simply buy some handcuffs: here's the Smith and Wesson model 103P straight from their web site, the same model used by law enforcement. They come with two keys; I keep one on my regular keychain just for kicks. And folks have been DIY-ing their own lower receivers long before stereo lithography took off. Group buys on rough forgings and castings (which are less than 50% complete or whatever the magic threshold is for the law to consider them not to be gun parts) are regular happenings on the various forums and hangouts. And there are even jigs available which help you locate all the holes for the various fire control and takedown pins, spring detents, and the buffer tube thread, so that it's possible with just a drill press or even a hand drill to complete the machining without a mill. (I'm not even convinced that anyone would want a polymer lower receiver, but I keep reading about the surprising strength of the newest formulations.)

All of these things have been possible long before rapid prototyping machines became cheap. Sure, maybe it lowers the bar to entry a bit, but it's not a fundamental shift or anything.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:00 AM on June 1, 2012 [11 favorites]


So many confused ideas here.

First of all, even a copyright or patent doesn't mean you "own" that thing. It means you have a state-protected temporary monopoly. The assumption being that there's no way to put the cat back in the bag, once you tell anyone the idea it is available to everyone and impossible to own. But in recognition of the work you put in and to encourage others in the future, the state will temporarily work for you in suppressing others using the idea.

Second of all, it has already been possible to have a patent or copyright on the shape of a thing for a long time. Can I make a sign in the exact shape as a McDonald's sign for my own restaurant? Can I make a vinyl record in the exact shape as a BeeGee's album, including grooves, and sell it as my own? Can I take any patented mechanical device and make an exact copy?

I'm sure wealthy organizations with a vested interest in owning such things will find a way to do so.

As noted above, they already do. The interesting thing will be to see what happens when the physical world is on PirateBay just like the info world is.
posted by DU at 4:02 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think at this point, "copyright" is only nominally temporary and is perpetual in practice. At least for things younger than Disney.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:18 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think clarifying the theory may help modify the practice.
posted by DU at 4:31 AM on June 1, 2012


If you think 3D printing is incredible, let me tell you about this little thing called a "CNC mill"...
posted by indubitable at 4:40 AM on June 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


I find DU's examples of "having [IP control] oon the shape of a thing for a long time" intrigueing. Because one could say, not only can one not fashion an exact replica of a BeeGees LP, one cannot fashion a musicbox drum, for instance, that plays "Stayin' Alive." One cannot fashion plates which depict in bas relief the sheet music notation for "More than a woman." One could presumably not fashion a torus with certain engraved markings on it if one also fashioned a device which interpreted those markings as a high-fidelity reproduction of "How Deep is your Love." In the face of a vastly expanded physical reproduction ability, the enforcement of copyright means being suspicious of any conceivable thing's ability to re-express a copyrighted expression. It is a Platonic paranoia.

(Arguably, this has already been in place for a long time.)

And I'm usually very excitable about the potential for personal replicators. In the best utopian scenario, humans mine asteroids for raw materials and live in an egalitarian age of plenty where anything one needs can be made bespoke without any exploitation of labor. Other commenters have alluded to other scenarios. But I feel like this is overstating technology, or at least seeing its benefits superficially, treating it as a MacGuffin in human progress. But when certain other interests start extolling the virtues of "technical solutions" to the problems replication presents to their interests, it makes me wretch a little. Technical solutions, including replication as a solution to scarcity, bring too complex a new dynamic. They change civilization in unpredictable and ambivalent ways. So I now see the coming of replication, the inevitable coming of legal and technical restrictions on replication, and the prototypes of the issue that have preceded it, as attempts to avoid coming to a humane solution, either out of cynicism or wisdom. I don't know which.
posted by adoarns at 4:49 AM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


If you think a CNC mill is incredible, let me tell you about this little thing called "manual machining" that's been going on for 150 years. And woodworking and stonemasonry that's been going on for thousands.
posted by DU at 4:50 AM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


No shit? I thought everything was made by waving a wand and sprinkling some fairy dust.
posted by indubitable at 4:53 AM on June 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


The interesting thing will be to see what happens when the physical world is on PirateBay just like the info world is.

This would put dent into retail sales, I imagine.

But of course "sales" will by then be an outdated capitalist concept and in the future "for the good of mankind" economy people will still go to work to invent new cool things for other people to make in their own homes for free.
posted by three blind mice at 5:11 AM on June 1, 2012


Until you can put an ipod in the scanner and in 20 seconds get a duplicate that has all the music also duplicated and a charged battery ready to go 3d printers will not be going mainstream. Now a printer that can build a house (well not quite) that's cool!
posted by sammyo at 5:18 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm so pleased they used a GW example in the article. One of the strongest protectors of their IP in recent years.
posted by wilful at 5:22 AM on June 1, 2012


also unless 3d printers can do my taxes they are stupid
posted by DU at 5:33 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


What if we move the discussion away from the evil IP boogeyman to the warm and fuzzy government regulation of guns? Most liberals don't want fully automatic weapons sold to just anyone and they support government regulation that attempts to prevent this.

For those unfamiliar with the American cult-of-the-firearm, an AR-15 is a popular semi-automatic rifle that can easily be purchased by well-behaved citizens in the United States. Enthusiasts are drawn to it because it is nicely engineered, reliable, versatile, highly modular, and good for many legitimate civilian uses.

The Lower Receiver is the frame that holds together all the other pieces of the firearm. In the States, all the other pieces can be purchased without a permit - over the counter or through the post. The Lower Receiver is the only part which requires a background check or any other kind of paperwork before purchase.


I used to know a guy in Louisiana - a journeyman machinist - who could make anything on his manual Bridgeport milling machine - including certain prohibited parts for "hunting rifles" that turned them into fully automatic machine guns. He once forgot to remove some of these items from a batch of other parts he got heat tempered for and so I noticed them - and recognized them - and asked.

He knew what he was doing was a felony, he was more careful than a drug dealer, and his business was pretty limited. Supply was also limited because not everyone with a milling machine could make such things. It requires a lot of skill, the right equipment, and a business cover.

Given a 3D printer and some plans I download from bittorrent, the government regulations and practical restrictions against this sort of activity become practically unenforceable. Machine guns for everyone.

And then when some private patent owner, a troll, comes in and shuts these people down for patent infringement, who will be the hero then?
posted by three blind mice at 5:43 AM on June 1, 2012


If you think a CNC mill is incredible, let me tell you about this little thing called "manual machining" that's been going on for 150 years. And woodworking and stonemasonry that's been going on for thousands.,

Well sure, but making stuff by hand (and, to an extent, using a CNC mill) takes a great deal of skill. I could, given the right tools, proper education, several years of practice and then a few weeks to actually work on it, carve by hand a perfect replica of Michaelangelo's David, or a series of ball-and-socket jointed prototypes for my design project. Alternatively, after downloading or kludging together a design file (hard to do well, but astonishingly easy to do a mediocre job of) I could just hook my laptop up to a 3D printer, click "print" and sit down for a nice cup of tea.

The excitement isn't about being able to make things that were impossible to build up until now, it's about suddenly giving unskilled schlubs like me the ability to rapidly and cheaply turn our ideas into physical objects to test, play with or display. Or, indeed, to turn Disney's ideas into physical objects.

Personally, I'm most interested in what will happen to one of the simplest and most important physical objects in our lives: keys. We already have algorithms that can look at a photo of a key snapped with a phone, then output the numbers necessary for a locksmith to cut a copy. But actually making the copy requires a complicit locksmith. With the rise in availability of 3D printing it'd be pretty trivial to use those numbers to automatically generate a 3D model of the key (I know people who've taken sets of input data to automatically customise the parameters of various 3D objects), and thus immediately print a copy of any key that you can get a photo of.

There are obvious responses to this e.g. having microchips in every key similar to modern cars, or introducing two-factor authentication (key + PIN? key + mobile phone?) to every house's front door. But the perceived importance of physical security means that keys -- especially house keys -- have a lot of emotional resonance, and people are reluctant to change. So it'll be interesting to see how this attack vector develops, and whether the obvious countermeasures manage to stay ahead of it.
posted by metaBugs at 5:46 AM on June 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


metaBugs, but is it the lack of locksmiths that's really the barrier here? Getting a pic of my key would still require you to go through my purse or pockets, which is still a barrier if a small one. I'm not sure that it's much different than using another material to make an impression of my key, which one can do now.

Now some kind of laser tool that could be stuck against a lock/scan it/come up with matching key components would definitely make keys obsolete. And not require being a pickpocket.
posted by emjaybee at 6:33 AM on June 1, 2012


What 3-D printing hobbyists mostly have to watch out for, Weinberg argues, is copying artistic patterns or designs on an object. That violates copyright.

Even that is not always the case. You can get a Design Patent, but you can't always sue people for making a physical object that looks like your object. There was this lawsuit a while back where an artist wasn't able to claim copyright on some firepit designs.

With the warhammer thing, I wonder what the basis was for the copyright claim. Obviously warhammer doesn't own a copyright on the idea of little toy tanks. I wonder if the issue was actually related to trademark rather then copyright. Like maybe they tried to take them down because he was listing them for download as "warhammer" related (or maybe they were meant to be straight up copies.)

However, the DMCA does not relate to trademark, just copyright. So who knows. Maybe the tanks were really similar.
But the perceived importance of physical security means that keys -- especially house keys -- have a lot of emotional resonance, and people are reluctant to change.
Most of those tumbler locks are already ridiculously easy to pick anyway. Of course, that requires skill too. But copying a key from a photo doesn't require a 3D printer either, you can just take a blank key down and file it down with an ordinary file. It probably wouldn't even take very long.
posted by delmoi at 6:43 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is the problem of the 21st century. When the means of production was limited, you didn't have to worry too much about copying and counterfeiting. Who has a factory to press record albums or fabricate circuit boards or whatever? Now that those things are much more available, we have to change our ideas of ownership. How do we pay the people who design stuff for us if their work isn't somehow protected?
posted by gjc at 6:44 AM on June 1, 2012


I've tried the key thing with a script similar to this one, and it turned out pretty nicely after some tweaking. The main barrier is that the current materials (ABS plastic) aren't quite strong enough to make something that thin. If you're lucky it'll work once, if not you've got a piece of plastic stuck in your lock.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:49 AM on June 1, 2012


I'm not sure there are that many things that you can currently buy, which will in the future be made on 3D printers. By virtue of the fact that they are available today, they're probably being produced in quantity -- since that's the dominant mode of production -- and it's tough for one-off 3D printing to compete with that.

Even for grey-market stuff like auto sear parts, the supply today isn't limited by manufacturing capacity, it's limited by it being really, really illegal and severely punished. They're certainly around if you want to buy them, but there's not much of a market. I'm not sure that 3D printing, assuming you could get a 3D printer that would easily make one, given the stresses involved on the part, would really change that significantly.

What I think is going to happen, is that 3D printing is going to open up a whole range of new products which don't currently exist, because they're just impractical to make right now. Everything that you can buy today and which is mass produced, will continue to be mass produced in order to take advantage of economies of scale. But we'll have a new category of full or semi-custom products that can't easily be made in a factory in China.

It's difficult to predict exactly what those products would be (if I or anyone knew for sure, we'd probably be in a position to make a lot of money), but a couple of things come to mind: anything that interfaces closely with the body is obviously ripe for customization, since people are different. We already have bespoke clothes, and if you've got enough cash you can get customized ear canal headphones, but what about customizing everything else that you touch in a day? Furniture, computer input devices, luggage, automobile interiors, etc. All of that could be built exactly around your body, rather than a one-size-fits-all assumption, and you can do it with today's CNC milling and 3D printing technology, for the most part. The biggest hurdle is creating the businesses around the technology, and getting consumers used to the idea of individual customization as anything but an insane luxury.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:56 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


he interesting thing will be to see what happens when the physical world is on PirateBay just like the info world is.

The Future is Now.

Single Link Pirate Bay
posted by Hobo at 6:58 AM on June 1, 2012


maybe it lowers the bar to entry a bit, but it's not a fundamental shift or anything.

People have made this mistake before.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:21 AM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Reconsidering Physical Key Secrecy: Teleduplication via Optical Decoding

They are still using a cutting machine that cuts metal blanks, but there is your Getting a pic of my key would still require you to go through my purse or pockets addressed. I suppose that the security for this is just never take your keys out of your pockets.
posted by jonbro at 7:25 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Spime rights!
posted by lumpenprole at 7:38 AM on June 1, 2012


three blind mice: "Given a 3D printer and some plans I download from bittorrent, the government regulations and practical restrictions against this sort of activity become practically unenforceable. Machine guns for everyone.

And then when some private patent owner, a troll, comes in and shuts these people down for patent infringement, who will be the hero then?
"
If you can't enforce gun legislation against these people, how are you going to stop them with IP law? I'm intrigued.
posted by brokkr at 7:40 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Regarding weak unusable keys: lost wax plastic technique.
posted by idiopath at 7:41 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


With the warhammer thing, I wonder what the basis was for the copyright claim. Obviously warhammer doesn't own a copyright on the idea of little toy tanks

Not toy tanks in general but rather the creative expression embodied in those particular toy tanks. The Warhammer designs are not exactly generic.
posted by jedicus at 8:21 AM on June 1, 2012


But can you own the shape of a thing?

If so, the Wonder Twins are going to have to come up with a new business model...
posted by trackofalljades at 9:23 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read the final FPP link yesterday (and thought about making a FPP, but figured it was too thin; I'm glad that Zarkonnen put more effort into his post than I would have). The note about patent laws being a lot less restrictive than copyright laws made me predict to the person who shared the link with me that, in 20 years, patent laws will be at least as restrictive as copyright laws, if not more so (unless 3D printers don't end up becoming commonplace).
posted by asnider at 10:36 AM on June 1, 2012


Oh man today is a good day. All the snark I would have injected into the handling thread was already there. All the snark I would have put into this thread about 3D printing BS was already here.

A good day.

So on a more serious note, hobby rapid prototyping won't be doing anything amazing until it starts throwing around bigger energies. For additive manufacturing the strength of the material generally scales with the working temperature. Low temp thermoset plastics aren't very strong.

So call me up when you get some fancy technical epoxy printers, or you have some genetically engineered spider silk derived stuff.
posted by Chekhovian at 12:39 PM on June 1, 2012


The 3-D Printing Battle Takes Shape
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 2:14 PM on June 1, 2012


These 'home computers' are pretty useless. They keep recipes and play stupid games. They'll never go anywhere.
posted by lumpenprole at 2:31 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm sure it's been touched on already, but I always thought about this when I saw those RIAA and MIAA adds that said "You wouldn't download a car."

Hell yes, I'd download a car. Me and Spider Jerusalem just have to go gather some trash for the maker!
posted by es_de_bah at 2:43 PM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


These 'home computers' are pretty useless.

Just because Moore's Law made a lot of computer boom possible doesn't mean that the same sort of logic applies to every other possible thing. The technology behind a vertical mill or a lathe hasn't changed substantially in 50 years. You still need a certain amount of material to work with the needed forces to make the cuts.

If you want to go the other way and do additive manufacturing, then the energy you use to work the material at the nozzle generally sets the final strength. If you want to do selective laser sintering, sure that will produce you some awesome 3D chotchkes. But you need a pretty powerful laser. And there are a lot of issues that come with (safely) throwing around powerful lasers.

So maybe you can get a reasonably cheap cutting laser and cut thin metal stock and wood. You won't be building car parts out of that. Nor would I want to trust anything important to a possibly not very reliable material.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:38 PM on June 1, 2012


Honestly the main purpose I can see for a 3D printer is to make models of the spaceship drawings I did when I was younger. I have a ton of those- I could easily fill a house with them.
posted by happyroach at 4:08 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


That tank is instantly recognisable as a Leman Russ.
posted by wilful at 2:45 AM on June 2, 2012


es_de_bah: The ad actually says "You wouldn't steal a car". There's a common parody of it that substitutes the word "steal" for "download" to make a point.
posted by chmmr at 5:44 AM on June 2, 2012


What if we move the discussion away from the evil IP boogeyman to the warm and fuzzy government regulation of guns? Most liberals don't want fully automatic weapons sold to just anyone and they support government regulation that attempts to prevent this.

This liberal thinks that the evil IP boogeyman is a far more significant threat to the awesomeness of the future than any number of guns, which we are already well used to and have a relatively minor impact on society. Most people aren't going to try to acquire machine guns, and even those who do aren't going to be able to do much damage with them.

People get all worked up about guns and shootings, because they are dramatic events that attract a lot of attention, but in statistical terms they are not actually a serious problem. If you really want to save some lives, forget the guns and figure out a way to get rid of automobiles.
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:51 AM on June 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


> If you really want to save some lives, forget the guns and figure out a way to get rid of automobiles.

I propose a cannon-based transit system to replace automobiles.

FIRE ME, BOY!
posted by davelog at 5:53 AM on June 3, 2012


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