Scientific American published an interesting article this morning that takes a look at 3D printing and how its rise could affect the luxury goods economy. Additive manufacturing, as the process is sometimes called, "prints" three-dimensional objects layer by layer, using anything from plastic polymers to stem cells to food as "ink."
As Thomas A. Campbell and William J. Cass argue, the price of the technology will continue to drop as the printers themselves become more advanced, which will create "new opportunities for intellectual property (IP) pirates and counterfeiters."
Confronted by such technological leaps, legitimate businesses can only struggle to protect their rights. With a high-resolution laser scanner and a good enough AM system, a product counterfeiter could potentially replicate all sorts of luxury items. According to the International Chamber of Commerce, counterfeit goods currently account for between five and seven percent of total world trade — in other words, an estimated $600 billion a year. And this is even as 3D printing remains in its infancy. [Scientific American]
The advantage of 3D printing, they argue, is that it will save "would-be copycats the time and expense they once needed in order to obtain molds for parts and to set up complicated assembly lines."
There are all sorts of other things you can already 3D print: Living tissue, drugs, even pizza. And a lot of fuss has been made about 3D printing's scarier possibilities. With a MakerBot Replicator ($2,200) and the right blueprint, for example, you can currently 3D print a plastic lower receiver of an AR-15 assault rifle capable of firing live ammunition.
But 3D printing's disruptive potential in the luxury goods market is a tad overstated.
According to the International Chamber of Commerce, fake designer goods like shoes and handbags fuel the counterfeit economy. By 2015, ICC experts expect fake wares to exceed $1.7 trillion in value globally.
In other words, counterfeiters have gotten very, very good at convincing the untrained eye using old-fashioned methods. There are websites and sections of eBay that dedicate themselves to helping consumers discern the difference between real designer handbags and imposters.
As Campbell and Cass rightfully point out, 3D printing will make it easier to produce molds needed for simple parts. But beyond that? There isn't much. While current plastic 3D printers are great at printing tchotchkes and toys from open-source plan sites like Thingaverse, they are terrible at printing intricate objects with moving parts, like a zipper.
This will change, of course. But there's a reason a Rolex is a Rolex and a Casio is a Casio. Campbell and Cass's argument overlooks a major component that makes luxury goods desirable in the first place: The materials they are constructed from are of higher quality than what counterfeiters could get without dramatically eating into their bottom line. As wondrous as 3D printing is, you cannot print a sheet of pebbled leather or a gold band without ponying up some cash. Even if counterfeiters one day manage to make it cost-effective, designers will simply move on to using materials that are more elusive.
Plus, 3D printing even a simple object takes a long time — hours, even.
3D printing technology is inarguably evolving at a rapid rate. But it's hard to see how it can take an already humming shadow economy to another level.