Pirated 3D Models

Some people ask me what keeps me up at night. One of the answers is Intellectual Property and personal fabrication. At the moment we get about one DMCA Content Notice Take Down request a week at Shapeways.

Michael Weinberg wrote an excellent report titled It Will Be Awesome If They Don’t Screw It Up on this. He writes:

[…] it is critical for today’s 3D printing community, tucked away in garages, hackerspaces, and labs, to keep a vigilant eye on these policy debates as they grow. There will be a time when impacted legacy industries demand some sort of DMCA for 3D printing. If the 3D printing community waits until that day to organize, it will be too late. Instead, the community must work to educate policy makers and the public about the benefits of widespread access. That way, when legacy industries portray 3D printing as a hobby for pirates and scofflaws, their claims will fall on ears too wise to destroy the new new thing.

A casual glance over at Pirate Bay reveals that the number of infringing 3D designs is still limited. I did found a collection of Transformers models which obviously infringe on trademarks owned by Hasbro Inc.
I find it telling that there is a whole page about trademark on a Transformer fan community site.

For a change I do like how Apple explains very clearly on how 3rd parties can use their trademarks and copyright need to be used. I think it is an example on how to cooperate with your community — either commercial or non-commercial.

There is both opportunity and risk involved for the existing manufacturing industry but trying to stop it is not an option. We have seen what happened to the music industry. They are still recovering after decades of litigation and falling revenues. But they never have been able to stop it.

Design meta language

One of the problems in 3D design is that 3D models do not — or to a limited extend — capture any design intent. The technical requirements for manufacturing a part or product are hard to extract from a design let alone the functional requirements.

This is already a very basic problem in the 3D printing industry with regard to material specifications. There are multiple material printers on the market but they are nearly impossible to use because 3D software does not capture how things are made.

But the requirements go beyond materials alone. Parts need to have particular properties to function as intended. The production process is in itself less important and should be determined by the available resources. These properties need to be captured in the design.

There is also something like design intent which is also not captured. If a designer gets a design from another designer the design intent is not captured in the 3D model. This makes it hard for another designer to make adaptations to that design. He needs to reverse-engineer the design intent to be able to do that. Imagine an adaption of design based on a particular functional requirement. For instance you have an USB stick and you want to change the design to micro-USB. Fundamentally the impact of that decision is low but without knowledge on the actual design it hard to make that adaption.

The current file formats are very poor at capturing design decisions. There is a need for a Design Meta Language on top of the existing file formats which allows designers to store intent, function and properties of parts and components.

So why is that important you ask yourself? Well for one to make it possible to let non-designers customize designs without the need to have a designer available. There are situations where that is not feasible like a war zone or in space or when it just too expensive like in most consumer applications. Consumers can improve designs and share them with others. They can improve or adapt it further and so on. It is called iterative design.

3D printing in space

Today an article in Space.com appeared about tests a company Made In Space did with two 3D printers during a few zero-gravity flights. It is unclear from the article if the tests were successful or not. Regardless there are a couple of reasons why 3D printing makes so much sense.

The first requirement is for manned space flight into our solar system is that we can actual do manufacturing in space. At the moment all stuff is hauled from Earth and brought to space. Sometimes some assembly is required but we send mostly finished products in space. This limits us to wander very far from earth. The production, testing and shooting things into space is extremely costly and time-consuming.

The second requirement is that we need to be able to fix what is broken — even far from home. When we send people to Mars you cannot just order and replace a broken part. Because of this reason spaceships and space equipment are build according to the highest quality standards possible to avoid that they break. But of course things break nonetheless. Just imagine a design flaw which causes a part to break. If we would lower quality standards and can accept things will break in space the cost of design and manufacturing for space equipment can go down significantly.

The third requirement is when we venture further in space we cannot prepare 100% for what we will find or encounter. We need to be able to adapt existing equipment or make new ones.

The fourth requirement is that we simply cannot take everything with us.

Here comes 3D printing to the rescue. It offers a few solutions to these problems. 3D printers allow to manufacture on the spot using basic materials. On a space mission only these basic materials should be on board. I can imagine that we would mine local resources like moon dust to build parts.
When parts fail during a mission because of design flaws astronauts can modify the design — or even receive it from earth — and build an improved part on the spot. New parts can be created as well and produced for opportunities or problems we could not envision when the mission started.

The current state of 3D printing is still not up to the level it is good enough to actually solve the aforementioned problems but I am confident that we can get there. I can only imagine what will happen when NASA would put her weight behind this technology and actually starts to move this industry forward like she did in other industries as well.

3D printing: so what’s it called?

In general 3D printing is called 3D printing. But there are many other names or acronyms used for this technology.

So far I have seen:

  • Additive Manufacturing (AM) — as opposite to subtractive manufacturing (CNC and others)
  • Additive Fabrication (AF)
  • Rapid Prototyping (RP) — old term when the technology was mostly used to make.. well.. prototypes
  • Solid Freeform Fabrication (SFF)
  • Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM)

I am not sure who thought of the term 3D printing. Personally I favor 3D printing simply because most people immediately have some sense on what it means.

Who invented 3D printing?

That is an excellent question. Multiple people invented 3D printing technology around the same time. Some articles on the internet state that Chuck Hull was the inventor of 3D printing. I did some research on the patents in this area and here are my findings.

Indeed the first commercial machine was offered by 3D Systems — company founded by Chuck Hull — in 1986. Based on internet research he seems to have invented the machine in 1984 but waited to file a patent for stereolithography (SLA) until 1989.

Carl Deckard filed for a patent on Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) in 1986. The same year Chuck Hull commercialized SLA technology.

But Ross Housholder already filed a patent in 1979 for “A molding process for forming a three-dimensional article in layers”. The patent was never commercialized, but it was referenced in the patent of SLA by Chuck Hull.

So to me Ross Housholder is the inventor of 3D printing.

Design exploration and co-creation by consumers

In my post on blank canvas syndrome I wrote about that co-creation is a solution. In this post I would like to write about how co-creation — or co-design — can help and which approaches work best. It is based on some excellent research done by Loughborough University.

There are two approaches to let consumers do co-creation:

  1. Consumers design their own and have a designer help them
  2. Consumers choose a template and a designer modifies this template to their liking

When taking approach 1 consumers only deliver 1 design to the designer. They do not use multiple iterations or explore the design using multiple designs. Their final design is delivered to the designer. The designer need to abstract all design intent from this one drawing.
Interesting enough they regard the first drawing delivered by the designer as a draft and feel the need for iterating on the design to come to a final design which they like. They clearly recognize at that moment that multiple iterations are necessary.
Consumers expect that when the designer starts working with them that the designer “fills in the blanks” in their design — both from a functionality as an aesthetics perspective.

Most people prefer approach 2 from a process perspective by far while at the same time they are more satisfied with the results of approach 1. Consumers definitely suffer from the blank canvas syndrome and experience discomfort when they have to design their own ideas. At the same time the result of this approach leads to much higher satisfaction with the end result.
This means that any consumer taking approach 1 is very motivated to get the end result but the actual market demand is much lower. Research shows that only 10% of all consumers like this approach. The other 90% is much more comfortable with the template approach.
Approach 2 gives a less unique feeling over the end result. Consumers think that others will come to the same design changes they asked for.

For more information please read these two excellent articles:

  1. From Configuration to Design: Capturing the Intent of User Designers (Part 1)
  2. From Configuration to Design: Capturing the Intent of User-Designers (Part 2)

A new file format for 3D printing

Through ASTM a new universal 3D printing file format to replace the defacto standard STL. The effort was headed up by Hod Lipson. The new file format offers much more options and control to specify attributes for 3D printing of 3D models. It is an XML-based file format and is AMF (Additive Manufacturing File Format).

“This new format will mark the beginning of a new era of 3D printing capability,” Lipson said. “It’s a bit like when the world of printers took off once postscript was invented, because all printers became mutually compatible.”

For more information see the ASTM AMF page or the corresponding wikipedia article.

It remains to be seen how the 3D printer manufacturers and software developers pick this up Meanwhile I hope this XKCD cartoon is far from the truth…

3D Printers lack closed loop control

One of the main technical hurdle the current 3D printing technologies need to take is to go from open loop to closed loop control systems. Closed loop control will enable higher resolution and faster printing.

So what is closed versus open loop control? In an open loop control system machines get their instructions and start working. Components of the machine work within a set of parameters. There is no check if the components actually function as expected. It is assumed that they do. Regular calibration of these components insures that the machine keeps on functioning properly. Every mechanical component has variances during operation due to wear-and-tear or environmental conditions. During the design phase, components are selected which can keep on operating inside a specific range of operating parameters. Calibration during installation and maintenance cycles make sure they keep within that range.

Closed loop systems check themselves during operation to see if they are working correctly. If not, the machine calibrates itself while operating. In case the machine cannot correct the problem, it goes into error mode. Due to closed loop control machines are more reliable, and it allows machine manufacturers to push the components to their limits where variances in operation are greater but are self-corrected. In practice, this means better performance — both in speed, reliability and accuracy.

For a more in-depth explanation, please read the article Open And Closed Loop Control in CNC systems.

The current generation of 3D printers does not have or only extremely limited closed loop control systems. Wipers, laser mirror systems, printheads, material feeders and build platforms are operating nowhere near their capabilities. The only significant closed loop control system I am aware of is temperature control in the build chamber in various machines.

An excellent visible example where closed loop control systems made a significant impact are car engines. Up until 1980s car engines were mostly open loop systems and they tended to break down often. At the end of the 1980s, car manufacturers started to introduce closed loop systems in cars. The result was far more reliable engines while increasing performance and fuel efficiency.

Another reason to closed loop control systems to 3D printers is the option to extend the current material portfolio. 3D printing processes are very much married to their specifically designed materials because of this. For any new material, it is looking for a needle in the haystack to get the material properties perfectly aligned with the machine capabilities. It takes a considerable effort to make sure the material properties are kept stable during production of that material.

Closed loop control systems will make a significant impact on 3D printing technology in terms of speed, reliability and accuracy.

Blank Canvas Syndrome and Co-Creation

Give people blank piece of paper and ask them to draw something. A lot of people will hesitate and wonder what to draw. In my previous post, I talked about what you could do with a 3D printer at home. In this post I argued that most people are not 3D designers or aspire to be one. One of the reasons is that they simply have no idea what to make.

Blank canvas syndrome (BCS) is similar to what blank page syndrome is for writers — also called writer’s block. You do not know where to start. You have the tools or skills but there is no idea, no creativity. If you ask people what they would like to draw with 3D drawing software they have no idea. The blank canvas is staring in their face.

BCS is actually a problem for unleashing the creativity of people. There is a need to create and express yourself but the what is lacking. Designers — obviously — do not have that problem and there lies also the key. Co-creation or co-design brings designers and consumers together and let them work together on a design. When asked about what people would like to change on an existing product they have clear ideas and wishes. Together with a designer they can make wishes come true. It is how interior designers like to work.
Another solution is to give template-based designs and thus avoiding the blank canvas. Allow consumers to modify a template using a limited set of modifiers. This is basically what the design-your-own T-shirt and canvas companies offer. It made Zazzle and Cafe Press big.

In a next post I will go more deeply into design exploration and how it can help people to realize their ideas.