The technology is 3D printing, a process of turning a digital file into a physical, 3 dimensional object layer-by-layer, similar to how an inkjet printer works. And while it doesn't print tiny textiles (yet), there are a number of methods and materials used in 3D printing today, and it’s possible in the future that 3D printing could become so sophisticated and could replicate many more products in virtually any material.
It’s currently in use in various industries, including engineering (“rapid prototyping”), manufacturing, biomedicine (a woman recently had a prosthetic jaw “printed”), the food industry and architecture. There’s even an eBay / Etsy style marketplace where 3D designers can sell their digital CAD files or 3D printed physical goods called Shapeways.
CAD models can be constructed from scratch, or captured by scanning any object – even your own head.
If industrial or consumer at-home 3D printing takes off, and products could be sold as digital downloads instead of physical objects, what would this mean for ecommerce?
1. Physical products may become digitized, enabling the producer to design once and sell an unlimited number of digital files, potentially reducing the cost of production, inventory warehouse, shipping, damaged goods, returns, etc.
2. Consumers or retail partners could purchase goods at a lower cost and “receive” the item faster. Instead of waiting weeks or days for shipping, the item could be produced in hours.
3. Manufacturers could continue to offer “long tail” goods that are out of production but still valuable to consumers (such as old car or appliance parts).
Awesome. But this technology also opens up a can of worms regarding piracy and digital rights management.
Anyone with a 3D scanner could produce a file that could be resold, or anyone with a working knowledge of the software could modify a digital design and pass it off as their own. This is already a problem with Amazon’s self-publishing platform.
With media like mp3 files, ebooks, movies and TV shows, entitlements control who can access a digital product, how often, from what device, and what can be done with the content.
Even with DRM baked into a digital file containing a 3D image of a physical good, once the object is printed, it could simply be re-scanned and reproduced to get around the DRM.
If the world moves this way, piracy and illegal reproduction of intellectual property could become a bigger problem for physical goods than it is for digital. We’ll have to wait and see.