Next on the Open Source Horizon: 3D Printing

Three-dimensional printing is much more than a hobby industry today. Home users can download design files from websites and print a variety of products for their own use. Business users are creating functional products that let them jump-start their product lines with computer-assisted drafting software and desktop 3D printers.

High-priced proprietary 3D printing systems are rapidly giving way to more economical and innovative hardware and software developed by open source communities.

“Open source is really driving the 3D-printing technology. The desktop market has a price range of US$5,000 or less. Open source developers are very active in this industry and are responsible for a lot of innovations in hardware, extrusion methods and materials,” Harris Kenny, communications manager at Aleph Objects, told LinuxInsider.

However, consumers beware: The courts have yet to decide whether you can keep it if you print it. Ownership rights ultimately might depend on the source of the printer file making the object.

Community Roots

One of the early entrants into open source 3D printing innovation is RepRap. The open source 3D printer it developed is humanity’s first general-purpose, self-replicating manufacturing machine, the RepRap community claims. That portrayal is fairly accurate.

The RepRap community developed a desktop 3D printer that essentially replicates additional machines. All you need is the first one. The kit includes the plastic filament that extrudes from the printer’s nozzle to form the parts for more printers.

RepRap is one of the first open source organizations to produce a low-cost 3D printer. Started by Adrian Bowyer, it is one of the projects that started the open source 3D printer revolution.

Another innovative open source influencer of 3D printing is the Fab@Home project founded by Evan Malone and Hod Lipson. The project was the first to make a multimaterial 3D printer available to the public.

The RepRap and Fab@Home projects became synonymous with the open source do-it-yourself 3D printer movement. Together they helped to generate the momentum needed to accelerate technology innovation and its migration into the consumer and maker space.

“Interest in business use of 3D desktop printing is rooted in the value of manufacturing your own designs conveniently and economically,” said Aleph Objects’ Kenny.

3D Three-Step

The initial attraction of 3D printing to open source was its low-cost entry. The printers that use common filaments (the printing material) are a lot less expensive.

“That means users can do a lot more printing and innovating. It also makes possible small scale manufacturing,” said Kenny.

The design process is the first step and is not complicated. You use a drafting program such as a typical CAD application.

The second step is slicing. You take the object drawing created in the CAD program and slice it into hundreds of two-dimensional segments of that drawing. The third step is sending the sliced file to the printer.

“That second step creates a file that the printer understands. It tells the printer how fast to go — how much plastic to extrude, how many layers to create, how to fill the interior spaces. Things like that,” Kenny explained.

Size Matters

The open source innovations helped hardware makers to drastically reduce the size of the 3D printing machines. That also reduced the cost of buying and using them. 

Previously, the 3D printers were so large that you needed a separate space, much like a server, to store them. The price of the machines has gotten so low that you can get a printer to sit on the desk of each engineer in your company.

Along with the reduced size of the 3D printing machinery is the growing flexibility of the printing material and the hardware to control it. Rabbit Proto recently introduced an open source product that is essentially an add-on for 3D printers.

“It is a print head that plugs into the 3D printer that extrudes both plastic and electric materials,” Manal Dia, Rabbit Proto operations wizard, told LinuxInsider.

Upping the Ante

Rabbit Proto’s print head add-on technology takes manufacturers one big step closer to combining printed products with functionality. It could be especially helpful in manufacturing electronic circuits.

Usually you can just print plastic with 3D printers. Designers have had to figure out a way to add the circuit either by sending the plastic to a third party or to another country — and then having to wait a few days to a few weeks for it to come back. You would then have to continue with the printing process to complete the prototype, according to Dia.

“What we have created is a way to print the plastic with the circuit inside,” she said. “This makes for more economical printing. It is also faster. Ultimately, the speed of the printing is determined by the material you are printing.”

Priming the Pump

Rabbit Proto’s innovation simplifies the process. You don’t have to go from the CAD drawing to multiple printing steps and then try to figure out a way to put the pieces together, Dia said.

No other commercial solutions in the market let you do this at an economical price point — but there are some high-end proprietary products that let you do this for upwards of $150,000 per machine, she said.

This is an example of how the open source community is advancing 3D printing technology. The open source industry is experimenting to take the 3D printing process to the next level.

“We hope that as more users put our extruder fitting into use, they will be able to go in new directions that we haven’t mentioned yet,” Alexandre Jais, 3D printing guru at Rabbit Proto, told LinuxInsider.

Colorful Progress

Graphite is quite inexpensive and has some good conductive properties. For better conductive properties, you need to expand the range of materials you print. So, depending on the materials you use, it could be cheaper or more expensive as well as faster, according to Dia.

The ability to integrate the outer object with a functioning circuit board is one open source innovation. Another is the expansion of printable materials.

A good analogy is the innovation that took place with the development of black-and-white printers and the transition to color printers for text and graphics, explained Dia. With 3D printing, you get that same transition but with richer and more complex materials.

“All of a sudden, now you can not only go to different colors but to different materials — and you can also go to materials that let you print circuits or print food products,” she said.

Legal Battles

One area 3D printing technology may create is an infusion of legal challenges over intellectual property and manufacturing thefts, warned Bryan Vogel, leader of the 3D printing practice at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi.

“It has yet to be determined how much of a legal hassle 3D printing will become. That has not become mainstream yet,” Vogel told LinuxInsider.

A lot of what folks in the manufacturing industry are concerned about is people in their homes having the ability to make replacement parts for anything. Manufacturers would be losing out on what they deem to be their market and the sale of their goods, he explained.

“There is certainly a slippery slope we can go down. Naysayers are talking that 3D printing is going to cost manufacturers billions of dollars. Obviously there is a lot of upside to it as well,” said Vogel.

Napster Revisited

The potential legal minefield is similar to the Napster situation over the sharing of music, Vogel suggested. People in their homes downloaded music from sharing sites like Napster, and some of them were sued for illegally acquiring the songs.

“We could have something very similar happen in the 3D printing industry. You would have folks in their homes making copies of things that commercial entities are making and selling on the market. You would think these products would be protected by copyright or design patents, or maybe even utility patents,” he said.

If it is open source and people are worried about protecting the IP aspect, there are plenty of websites where people can go to download CAD drawings to use on their 3D printers at home. The problems arise when you buy something off the shelf, go home, scan it and print it.

“When you make your own CAD file that you can use over and over again or even post online, you start stepping on manufacturers’ toes,” Vogel said.

Keeping It Legit

There may be ways manufacturers can play nicely with 3D printing technology rather than trying to stamp it out, though.

One way might be for a manufacturer to post CAD files on its website to sell to customers, Vogel suggested. The manufacturer could allow downloaders to use the file and have protection — just as you would for music downloads after purchasing content with a digital rights management file embedded.

“With the digital rights management file associated with the CAD file, people could only use it for designated purposes, use it for a particular period of time, or they could not share it. That way the manufacturers that came up with these products could actually make more money than they would have without the sale of the CAD files for 3D printing,” he reasoned.

Own It Yourself

Another legal alternative is for 3D printer users to obtain their own intellectual property rights. A 3D printer user could create a CAD file for a product and obtain copyright or patent or trademark protection for that design.

The degree of ownership would depend on what you made. Obviously, there would be some hurdles to clear to prove you created the design. You would have to prove that you met the standards for the copyright or the trademark. Assuming that you met those fairly low standards and did not infringe on an existing protection, you could get your own copyright of your IP for the CAD files you created to print the objects, explained Vogel.

“I am not aware of any cases where a manufacturer has sued a consumer for printing an item on a 3D printer. But there have been some fights [among companies that] are trying to protect their market share and their products,” he said.

Keep It Free and Open

Open source products can become involved in infringement lawsuits by manufacturers. So can the makers of the printing products. If you are facilitating another’s ability to make infringing products, you certainly could be brought to answer for that, according to Vogel.

“It is a fine line between staying within what is open source and walking over to the side of things that may not be free to use and are things that other folks own,” he said.

How can consumers stay in the clear? Stay completely within the bounds of everything that is open source. Then you will be safe from liability.

“As soon as you start straying from that, which I think is pretty easy to do,” Vogel said, “you are going to be treading on areas that lead to liability.”

Jack M. Germain

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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