The new 3D printing technology is actually old hatat least as old as the CT scan, with which it shares key traits. Like the tomographic technology which revolutionised diagnostic medicine in the 1970s, 3D scanners are used to break down objectslike filigree jewellery, sayinto thin slices of data, which are distributed over the internet. Then, 3D printers supplied with dyed plastics in place of inks print out the slices to reconstruct the object. Microsoft has signalled that the technology is ready to roll out much more than costume jewellery. Windows 8.1, already supplied to hardware vendors and due for general release on October 18, includes a 3D manufacturing format called 3MF. The company has chosen to emulate 2D printing canons, which means that printing in 3D will be as easy as printing your air ticket. In turn, this means that Microsoft believes that 3D printing will be standard for desktop users very soon.
Indeed, the number of materials which can be used for 3D printing has been going up rapidly and the technology will get a leg up in February next year, when patents covering laser sintering expire. This technology, which is currently too expensive except for outsourced bulk printers like Shapeways, should be available for home use next year, replacing the fused deposition home printers now offered by companies like the trailblazer Makerbot. The time when you can order an Alfa Romeo online and print it out in your garage would still be far away, but substantially closer than it is today.
Already, lots of things can be printed out. Chinese-like gift items are routine, printed off machines which are already second generation in the US and are being knocked off themselves by Chinese manufacturers. Unusual objects like SLR lens caps, which are difficult to reorder if they are lost, can be downloaded and printed off. Buttons that have popped off clothes worn with immoderate pride can be similarly replaced. But when I looked at the design requests on the forums of Defcad.com, the first search engine focused on 3D designs (its still in alpha), the first thing to pop up was a request for the Winchester repeater which won the West. Thingiverse.com, the repository of tens of thousands of 3D designs, recently cleansed its stables of contraband like handgun designs.
The blueprint for a plastic multi-bore handgun without a serial number is already out there in the wild. Nicknamed the Liberator, only its firing pin and ammunition are not 3D printable. The pin is a common nail and plastic ammo is not entirely impossible to imagine, though it is currently impossible to print. What next, a printable nuclear bomb That is still in the realm that companies euphemistically refer to as special projects, but counterfeit money should be doable. In a strange irony, paper is one of the things that 3D printers have just learned to output, and watermarks and metal foil should be easy to embed.
Unless 3D printing is to go the way of Bitcoin, down the shady primrose path, it needs regulation. It poses a special challenge, conflating control with free speech issuestaking the blueprint of a weapon off the internet could amount to censorship. Therefore, it needs a specialised regulator, perhaps a multilateral body, since 3D printing is a borderless internet phenomenon.
While the worlds governments squabble over that question, start your own revenue stream. Scan your art collection in 3D and sell the blueprints online. And then you can spend decades ranting about 3D piracy.