Caveat emptor: news reports from the Age of Direct Digital Manufacturing

C Sven Johnson @ 18-02-2009

Sven Johnson’s Future Imperfect returns with more news from our very near future. You’ve heard of fabbing or 3D printing, right? Won’t it be amazing when anyone and everyone can become a designer – a web-based brave new world of commerce?

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson

Well, not necessarily. Sven looks at the disconnect between the old model of pre-corporate capitalism and the new model that a Fabrication-on-Demand industry will produce. In a nutshell: it’s the consumers who’ll run the greatest risks, without any of the safety nets provided by an up-to-date suite of intellectual property laws.

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Speaking from the near future to those of you still stuck in the recent past, I thought I’d share some old news items from the imperfect Age of Direct Digital Manufacturing. These reports concern situations and unfortunate events which everyone should have realized were on the horizon back in the early 2000s, but which no one bothered to mention in the mad rush to embrace rapid manufacturing technology… probably because people were too busy surviving the economic crash and looking for ways to escape the downturn.

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If you’re reading this in 2008-2009, a bit of background. Some of you might already be aware of an emerging fab-on-demand (FoD) e-commerce shopping trend, but for the rest of you it works something like this:

  • an average person 3D scans or models some object which an FoD site’s host can fabricate using their in-house, rapid-manufacturing tools and a relatively limited range of materials;
  • the budding entrepreneur then sets up an e-store on the direct digital manufacturer’s shopping site and posts marketing-style images of the computer rendered 3D object;
  • after the fabrication files have been uploaded and the online store is stocked, the digital proprietor then promotes the FoD product on a bunch of social networking sites, through one of the free “press release” news services, or via one of the overly eager sites happy to attract readers with a pseudo-review of something – anything – new and shiny;
  • finally, the newly-minted product developer waits patiently for a cut of the sales revenue while the site’s host takes orders, fabricates the otherwise virtual product and ships it directly to the end user.

If you’re familiar with print-on-demand, it’s essentially the same thing – except instead of a book or calender the item is a lamp or a figurine. And as with most new technologies, there are process limitations – the most significant of which is the materials associated with a particular production method.

For one thing, most manufacturers of rapid-manufacturing devices don’t just take any material and put it into their equivalent of Star Trek’s replicator. Even if they could they probably wouldn’t, since selling 3D printing “ink” cartridges is big business.

For another, if they’re savvy and able, they’ll patent their custom, high-quality materials, thus forcing competitors to engineer something which might be less robust. Far better that parts made from their competitors’ machines fall apart in consumer hands than parts from their machines.

Materials concerns aside, in some circles these technological developments were being heralded as a return to the glorious age when there wasn’t a bothersome middleman to get in the way of capitalism: the so-called “good old days” of commerce. Of course there’s the fabrication/hosting service, but – like almost everything else connected to the Net- production costs effectively went away. To use an analogy: the host was the river on which someone put their empty vessel which, as it made its way to another region, scooped fish-product from the water which it sold upon arrival at its destination.

FoB hosts became, for all practical purposes, part of the DIY manufacturing infrastructure; like a highway or rail system.

Enthusiasts liked to compare the emerging market to a bygone age when horse owners went directly to blacksmiths to have horse shoes crafted, except the comparison left out a few crucial details: namely that it was just between you, a mostly oblivious and blindly trusting consumer, and – more often than not – a budding, entrepreneurial but essentially inexperienced “everyman” designer. Consumers had forgotten craft, craftsmen had skipped apprenticeships, fabrication processes were still relatively immature, and no one really bothered to point out these tedious facts.

Now that you’re up-to-speed, we can return to those news stories – because, as they say, every fluffy-happy cloud has a deadly carcinogenic lining.

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For some time there was a flood of news stories about the end of the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of a new, fab-on-demand revolution. It was like virtual worlds (both times), only way bigger; going up and coming down. When a virtual world crashes, you’re left staring at a computer monitor’s screen. When a vat-grown part ordered from some online shopping site crashes, the consequences are significantly more variable.

There’s one story I recall about a widower and father of five living in North Carolina who made it big at first. Like many other manufacturers, his employer had abandoned their US-based facility for greener pastures overseas.

Unemployed and unable to afford much beyond a roof over their heads and food on the table, the primarily self-taught woodworker designed his own line of ready-to-assemble children’s furniture for his kids. Sensing opportunity and genuinely believing himself to be a furniture design expert (mainly because he’d managed the “Stains and Finishes Group” at the now-abandoned furniture factory where he was previously employed), he uploaded his designs to a popular FoB site, received some glowing, picture-only reviews from a few popular “design” sites, sold enough RTA units to make a living and became a minor media darling on the dying daily talk show circuit. He was an early member of the 21st Century DIY Man meme: a self-educated Renaissance dude capitalizing on emerging Internet business models linked to rapid-manufacturing technology.

Things were apparently going well until some celebrity’s child was severely injured while trying to climb one of his untested and inherently unstable bookshelves. Next thing you knew, every newshound was looking for this guy’s credentials and every paparazzi was invading his family’s space. If Joe the Plumber is familiar to you, then imagine the media frenzy notched up to eleven. That’s what happens when an international media star’s child is horribly disfigured while playing on something you designed and sold.

Lacking typical manufacturer’s liability safeguards – from product testing documentation to insurance – and subject to the laws of the litigious culture in which he resided, our hero lost everything… including his “test-subject” children.

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Then there was the mother who decided to give her pre-teen daughter a gift to celebrate a perfect report card. Nothing outrageous; just something to show her youngest how proud she was of her accomplishment.

As her daughter was a big fan of a new anime sensation, she went shopping for something related. Unfortunately, the show’s creators hadn’t yet licensed out their trademark, so she didn’t find anything at the local mall or on traditional e-commerce sites.

Unwilling to settle for anything less, she purchased a bespoke necklace being sold on an FoB/DIY site catering to amateur jewelers by someone unconcerned with intellectual property law. Unfortunately, this individual was also unconcerned about the safety of the materials and processes used to create the IP-violating charms she was selling.

In this particular case the designer used the host’s site to both sell her fabbed “raws” as well as some finished pieces. For the finished pieces – one of which was sold to the mother and sent via an international package service – the designer both modeled and purchased her own 3D-printed resin items, and then finished the product at home using cheap materials purchased at discount warehouses in her home country, which doesn’t have the same level of consumer protection as more developed nations.

Unfortunately, it never occurred to either the mother or the seller that the daughter would put the necklace in her mouth, or that doing so could be fatal – the result of a toxic but unnoticeable reactionary mix of a custom resin, industrial glues and fillers, and a variety of sparkly automotive paints.

The allergic reaction happened in class. In this case the consequences weren’t fatal, but the family did incur serious medical costs from high-fee neurosurgeons. If the seller either lived within their jurisdiction or was over 18, they’d have sued. Instead, the parents have been making the circuit sharing their sad story and warning other parents… when they’re not caring for their disabled daughter.

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Then there’s the story of the more prudent but equally unfortunate customers of a relatively sophisticated businesswoman who supplied seals and o-rings to the increasingly popular “sport aircraft” industry. Unknown to her or her customers, the relatively secure and well-regarded FoB site was hacked and the 3D fabrication files she’d uploaded altered.

It was months – and a few dozen deaths – before investigators finally figured out what had happened. Who’d have thought that changing the wall thickness of a set of hollow o-rings by a millimeter or two could result in such dramatic equipment failure?

Established, old-school aviation suppliers tied to influential investors and politicians, is who. The resulting media coverage was a circus.

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Once upon a time – back in the “good old days” – everything sold came with an implicit “Buyer Beware” understanding. Consumers took this to heart; took their personal safety and well-being into their own hands instead of relying on government inspectors or the judicial system to keep sellers honest. That hasn’t been generally true in the West for a long time. Just as technology outpaces intellectual property law, so too does it effectively render the protections upon which so many unknowingly depend null and void.

Watch yourselves.

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Sven JohnsonSven Johnson is an unrooted freelance designer increasingly working at the intersection of tangible and virtual goods. His background is varied and includes a fair amount of travel, a pair of undergraduate degrees and a stint with the US military. He’s a passionate wannabe filmmaker, a once-upon-a-time underground comix creator, and – when facilities are available – an enthusiastic ceramicist who is currently attempting to assemble a transmedia, transreality open-source narrative in what remains of his lifetime.

[Future Imperfect header based on an image by Kaunokainen.]

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One Response to “Caveat emptor: news reports from the Age of Direct Digital Manufacturing”

  1. Natanael L says:

    How paranoid. ;)

    Seriously, there are worse cases out there with “legit” businesses.
    And why should these cases be an argument against 3D-printing?
    All you need is some kind of regulation – if you sell something you have responsibility for it, if you share it as with FLOSS (take a look at the GPL license – it’s your issue if your computer blows up) then the user has to be aware of the risks.

    And it has to be easier to have things tested – there are CE marks in the EU for a reason, and if anybody could get their creations tested according standards, then this would not happen.
    Why not test for toxic materials and if it’s stable and can hold a certain wheight?
    And the case where the site got hacked – as if that couldn’t happen to anybody else as well … Oh, wait a minute – IT HAS!

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