After re-reading Bradshaw, Bowyer and Haufe’s paper “The Intellectual Property Implications of Low-Cost 3D Printing”, we’ve been considering where this personal manufacturing space is heading. In the paper, the tangled intellectual property rights scenarios they described involved personal manufacturing of some sort. It occurred to us that at the end of the day, most manufactured consumer objects are used by a person, directly or indirectly. Why else would they exist? Consumer objects are ultimately for personal use.
In the distant future when personal manufacturing capabilities become much more widespread due to more advanced capabilities and ease of use, people have the potential to become the manufacturers of the objects they use. But what does that imply? The ability to simply scan objects, make them yourself and be protected via “personal use” laws challenges current concepts of commercial manufacturing. The previously “commercial” objects found in stores would be replaced by “personal use” objects. Why would you be a manufacturer of consumer goods if the essence of your products could be quickly reproduced by everyone “for personal use”? Perhaps there will always be some aspects of manufacturing that won’t appear in personal manufacturing stations (such as high-density electronics, unusual materials, etc.), but many objects don’t involve those.
Those manufacturers would have to change their approach, much like other industries have transformed over the past decade. The answer might be App Stores for objects: an easy-to-use, touch-a-button store for objects. But it won’t be objects you’ll buy. Instead you will receive the design, which you will use to manufacture the item yourself.
We can see the beginnings of this manufacturing concept in the business models of Ponoko and Shapeways, but the technology, designs and even knowledge of this capability are simply not there yet. In coming years when the pieces are “ripe”, a future Steve Jobs will put it together into a breakthrough system that everyone can use.