3D Printing and the end of ownership

There is a lot of discussion online regarding the possible (inevitable?) copyright/intellectual property/patent/legal fights around personal 3D printing. However, I’ve yet to see anything about a different fight that I have experienced several times now, so I figured I’d write about it and see what others think.

Mine, mine, mine!

As long as I’ve been printing on my Thing-o-Matic I’ve felt joy, wonder, and a bit of pride over the things I’ve been able to design and 3D print and hold in my hand in a matter of minutes. The feelings are very similar to those I’ve experienced in the past when I’ve produced other types of “things” — ceramics, music, art, newspaper ads, and so forth; there’s something special in all of them. The one-of-a-kind pieces, like the ceramics, have an even more special feeling to them: I made this, there is only one, don’t you dare break it or even look at it funny! It’s a sense of personal ownership, much akin to having spent money on something special, like your first car or a wedding ring. This is different from, say, the feeling of ownership of a bag of chips, or a new pair of shoes.

Several times over the past months that I have been 3D printing things, I’ve misplaced a piece or two here or there; or like today, a whole bag of pieces! As these things have that special feeling of personal ownership, I immediately freaked out when I discovered them missing. I called my wife at home: where they there? No?!! Could they be in the car? Could they be at the studio? I literally broke out in a nervous sweat.

And then I realized in one of those physically stumble and grab onto something moments: I can simply replace these “things” by 3D printing more of them.

Unlike other items that share this sense of personal ownership, I hadn’t paid money for these items. Well, not a substantial amount of money, maybe $2 worth of ABS plastic; the majority of “cost” was my time. Since all of these items have already been designed and run through ReplicatorG to make the 3D printer (gcode) files, the only thing I’d have to do is load them and press “print”. I had around 15 items in the bag, and the majority were 10-15 minute prints, so maybe with a half-day of running items back-to-back I could replace all lost items.

This is what struck me as not having seen being talked about: my sense of personal ownership has changed.

Unlike those ceramics or other special things that really are not replaceable or just expensive, these were neither. Not really.

But also unlike other day-to-day “things” around the house, these “things” still held a special worth to me — they still have a bit of me in them.

Questions questions…

I begin to wonder that when we are to the point of downloading and 3D printing the shoes we want that day, will we still have what now may be an old-fashioned sense of ownership? While we (most likely) aren’t going to be designing our own shoes to 3D print, do they have that feeling of wonder just because we output them on our machine? Do we still get upset when someone takes them, or damages them? Or do we just not care because we can output another, clean, fresh pair?

Do we then lose the wonder of our own pieces?

In doing so, do we gain a new sense of altruism? That is, if I can just 3D print myself a new pair of sneakers, can’t I just do the same for the kid down the street who doesn’t have a 3D printer?

Maybe this is the concern of at-home 3D printing to today’s mass-market consumer goods companies.

4 thoughts on “3D Printing and the end of ownership

  1. An interesting and thoughtful piece, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I was thinking this through the other day and my thoughts followed a similar theme to your own.One point that I would challenge… if that is ok?You say “Maybe this is the concern of at-home 3D printing to today’s mass-market consumer goods companies.” I am not sure that there is any concern being shown by mass-market companies as yet. It seems to me that a myth has developed that 3D printing is going to be a disruptive technology. I am not convinced it will be. Don’t get me wrong, it opens up new possibilities, but I don’t think traditional manufacturing will suffer especially. Demand for goods in mechanised societies is in the main not led by need but by desire. That desire is generated by marketing and all the big companies have to do is produce marketing for product that is difficult to replicate at home. A normal printer/scanner is perfectly capable of replicating a book, but how many people do that? None, it’s too much like hard work and it’s too expensive.

  2. Great comment. You may be surprised to find I agree with you to a large degree. 🙂 I’m always happy to be challenged as I know that I’m not “right”; I don’t think I ever could be, totally. I’m also not trying to BE “right”. I enjoy thinking and talking about this stuff, and getting different viewpoints. The more input we all have, the better we can all make sense of things.So, I agree that 3D printing may not be as disruptive as some folks are saying. At least I’m hoping not. But I can see the signs that some companies aren’t going to wait until it’s a problem before they do something; just because there hasn’t already been an outward voicing of concern from large companies doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about it. I think there are other industries, at least in the US, attempting to assert control over what can and can’t be shared on the internet (see: SOPA/PIPA/ACTA/et al). These types of initiatives are being backed by major companies who seemingly have no direct concern about these laws stated goals, but can see other, more nefarious, uses for the laws. Already there have been cease-and-desist (perhaps even DMCA take-down) requests for people to remove items from Thingiverse because they infringe some company’s copyright/trademark. But these haven’t been from really large companies, but instead mostly smaller companies whose products aren’t terribly complicated and can, in-full, be reproduced by a 3D printer. Should any SOPA-like legislation get passed, I think we’d see much worse use of laws by the smaller companies against sites that could affect the large ones as well, and instead of just losing one or two community-made items, we lose entire repositories.I also agree that there are many, many first-world consumer items that are either too complicated or just plain impossible to create via 3D printing alone. However, how many basic-needs items can be? We can see places where the population can’t afford the basics and have turned creative re-use of products into an art form, making new things from scraps of old things. One 3D printer in the middle of these areas with the right 3D files and there is no longer a need to afford the basics. Or, perhaps, even the luxuries.People may joke about being able to “3D print shoes”, but I see this is a possible prime example of the loss of ownership on several levels. As materials selection increases, and 3D printer technology gets more and more advanced, traditional manufacturing methods will be challenged (note, not necessarily disrupted). Imagine if someone can download a parametric file of a shoe and 3D print it (either themselves or at the local 3D printer shop), where do the Nike’s and Addidas’s of the world fit in? At first they still sleep easily because they have quality materials and marketing to make their stuff seem better. Then, as more people realize that materials are less important because they can 3D print a new pair whenever needed, the shoe companies start to lose meaning, so they start to sell 3D printer files of their shoe lines. Then, when someone in their basement comes up with a new style of shoe that fits better, feels better, and makes better use of the 3D printing technology because that’s what they live with daily, and they freely share that file with the world, why would anyone buy a name-brand shoe? The hysteria of perceived scarcity goes away. The turning of a basic necessity into a luxury goes away. This is pretty dang disruptive. 😉 But – not today. Not tomorrow. But it will happen (unless governments get involved, that is).Regarding the scanner/printer you bring up, it seems like you make the perfect argument as to why 3D printing IS disruptive. 😉 Scanning/printing a book is tedious and expensive. Additionally, what reason does an average consumer have of replicating a book they already own? If they want a digital version for their eReader or computer, odds are they can already find it online (free or purchase). They are probably not losing their books regularly so having a digital backup and manner to reproduce them probably isn’t high on the list.However, downloading and 3D printing an item is easy and cheap. Even 3D scanning an item is getting cheap and capable of producing decent quality things.Also, from personal experience, there are places in the world where scanning and reproducing a book is commonplace. I had a copy of a book that was almost indistinguishable from the original — full color, glossy cover and all — made at the corner copy shop in 20 minutes. And this WAS in a first-world country. When that becomes “give me the Knockia NG-730 insides with the Abble jPhone 62 case” and the merchant grabs some electronics, places them on a holder, and 3D prints a case around them in 15 minutes, someone in some company is going to freak out hard.Thanks for the comments. Sorry for my long reply. I could go on, but I need to eat breakfast. 😉

  3. 3d printers will be another step towards the erosion of IP and patent laws. These laws are for protecting profits, not society. I dont know if you intended it in your article, but you imply that ownership of the printed article isnt that important. I argue that it is as if i stole it, you would have to print another at some cost to yourself. if i ran off with your idea for a widget, you have not lost any physical asset. For writings that are well articulated (far better than i could hope to be!), check out these guys:


    • Thanks for the comment.

      What I was hoping to imply was that the value of owned articles in general is changing, not necessarily not important. Technology has already changed the way one thinks of “owning” media, and physical items that can be 3D printed will, eventually, do the same.

      Certainly there is a cost to the person doing the 3D printing, but it is negligible for a lot of things, and as time goes on that price is only going down. I would think that for things that would take a lot of money to re-print, it will probably still easier to just buy from a manufacturer who is able to make cheaper because they make a large number at a time in the first place.

      There are things that I simply can not go out and buy at a store so I make them, but while I have pride in both designing and making something, I have no pride of ownership; that is, I don’t say “you can’t have this because it is mine” not because it isn’t mine, but because the concept of “mine” is changing.

      Do you care that someone could copy and then delete your MP3 files? Wouldn’t you just press the “re-download” button in your app of choice? Do you even still have MP3 files, or do you stream your music from “the cloud” like the rest of the modern world? 😉

      These are great questions and discussions, and I am excited to see how things progress.

      Oh, and property is theft.

      Or not. 😀

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