3d-Printing and Government Disruption

Today Netopia launches its first report in English, on 3d-printing. It is a fascinating technology, almost magical: to create new objects from nothing. It breaks down the barrier between the physical and the digital space. But it’s not the technology itself that sets up the paradigm shift, it’s the dissemination. The technology was first developed in the Eighties and was limited to industrial applications for decades. For the past five years or so, enthusiasts have been building 3d-printers of various kinds but more recently 3d-printers (and scanners!) have become more like consumer products: better designed, more user-friendly and cheaper. The cheapest 3d-printer on the market sets you back around $300. So it’s personal 3d-printing that is the news here.

If this technology follows the same trajectory as for example photo printers – or smart phones for that matter – they will be in every home and work place within the next few years. Market disruption is a phrase often used in relation to technology and that is of course applicable also in this case: industries will change, just like the photo printer put a lot of photo labs out of business. But the implications of wide-spread personal 3d-printing goes further, it’s time for a new phrase: government disruption. Several parts of government will have to adjust, it seems. Intellectual property rights are obvious, the current distinctions of patents, copyright, trademarks and designs may not be valid in a world of personal manufacturing, but these are different types of law and separate departments in government. Consumer protection is another example, what if someone gets hurt by a 3d-printed product, who is responsible? The maker? The designer? The printer-manufacturer? We may have to change the way consumer protection is set up. Gun control is a topic I have written about before, very important to most societies in the world. And the core of government: taxation. How to collect tariffs, fees, VAT and other sorts of taxes when manufacturing is ubiquitous? When there are no hierarchies for government to interact with? It’s an anarchist’s dream come true.