Printing vs. Buying Products

A few months ago I read a story about a gunsmith who used a commercially available 3-D printer to “print” an AR-15 rifle. He used commonly available CAD designs and his knowledge of firearms to make the components out of, approximately, a dozen different kinds of plastics and, I am assuming, an off-the-shelf rifled gun barrel.

Histrionics about firearms aside (gun control, untraceable weapons, etc.), there are really interesting questions that this brings up about the nature of a product. Is it the thing itself, a result of a sourcing, manufacturing and distribution strategy, or is it the concept of the thing that then has all of the attendent sourcing, manufacturing and distribution attached to it. This got me to wondering if in the not distant future when 3-D printers become just another durable good that is available to consumers, if then a significant paradigm shift occurs whereby product companies no longer sell the finished product but rather the intellectual property of a product.

As I dwelled on what this would mean the obvious consequence was a renewed focus on DRM as a means of protecting against misappropriation of intellectual property. Regardless of how you feel about patent and copyright law, reasonable people agree that when someone, or a group of “someone’s” as in a company, invest in the creating of something original that they deserve to have some measure of protection against other people just copying it.

DRM in this context would not only provide protection against improper distribution but also against unlimited consumption. If you purchase the design for a tape dispenser the expectation would be that it would be a one time use plan… but this could unleash new business models based on subscription whereby you purchase the tape dispenser and every other product the company releases in that product line. (I picked a tape dispenser simply because as I looked around it was the first all plastic product I saw on a desk.)

With the increasing dependence on embedded electronics you might find yourself purchasing a design for a headphones that includes the production drawings your 3-D printer spits out and a key piece of the proprietary electronics that “activates” the headphones. For the consumer the advantage would be the ability to customize the headphones for size, color, graphics, or any other design feature, while also having access to differentiating technology that provides superior performance. For the company the focus would then be less on exploding the number of SKUs in the headphone product line, more on investing in the proprietary technology that provides differentiation in the market.

So I tucked all this away as interesting but otherwise unremarkable until yesterday when I read a story about a music synthesizer company that is posting design drawings for product replacement parts online, telling customers they can print parts instead of contacting the company to have them send out replacement parts, like knobs and sliders. Very cool stuff.

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