One of the most common questions I get about 3D printing from reporters is “what is going to happen when companies discover this and start freaking out?” More specifically, what happens when an industry has a “Napster moment” and decides that these crazy 3D printers are destroying their business model?
My usual answer is that I hope that the industry (whatever it is) learns from history and does not simply repeat it. When the internet became widely available and Napser showed just how easy it was to distribute music online, the music industry’s first reaction was to sue. The industry dedicated time, money, and effort to trying to turn back innovation and protect a business model that was suddenly outdated. It took years, and essentially being tricked by Apple, before the industry started dedicating some of that time, money, and effort to monetizing the internet.
Hopefully, the first industry disrupted by 3D printing skips phase one (sue everyone and pretend the technology does not exist) and jumps right to phase two (figure out how to turn this new technology into a way to make money). Encouragingly, there is some evidence that this is actually happening.
The first example of this was Teenage Engineering, a company that makes synthesizers. These synthesizers have small plastic parts, and sometimes those parts break. Unfortunately, it was costing their customers a lot of money to replace these small plastic parts because shipping them was expensive. Teenage Engineering decided to put the CAD files for the parts up on its site so that its customers could just print their own.
Today, we have a similar example of an even larger company viewing 3D printing as an opportunity, not a threat. Nokia announced that it was releasing CAD files for the back shells of one of its phones. This allows consumers to create their own customized back plates for their phones and print them out on their own.
Simply put, this is great news. When confronted with widespread access to 3D printing, both of these companies are asking “how can I use this to my advantage?” not “how can I sue to stop this?” Going forward, hopefully more companies decide to learn from history and follow these examples.