Software

3D printing: How soon can we create our own genuine fakes?

At the moment, consumer-grade 3D printers are fine for minor jobs such as extruding toys and models - but it won't be long before they're capable of so much more.

As the pixel count of cameras goes up and 3D printers improve, nothing will be safe. Photo: The RepRap Project

Written on a 70-foot barge cruising the Grand Union Canal in Warwickshire in the UK, and despatched to TechRepublic via 3G at 1.4Mbps.

You go to buy something and you inspect it closely. The branding, the packaging, the look and feel, all tell you it's the genuine article, but the price seems low. How can you tell whether it is the real thing at a bargain price, or a forgery - and do you even care?

Clothing, car and aircraft parts, electronics, jewellery, music and videos, pens and watches, handbags, luggage and shoes are now cloned or forged. Nothing is safe. That Rolex watch with the extra 'l' – Rollex - or that Cisco router with the badge in the wrong place are easy to spot, but it's not true in every case.

Probably the most complex area for forgeries is the art market. Everything from paintings to sculpture and paper money are crafted - often with more care than the original - and no one really knows how much value has been diluted and put at risk.

Of course technology has played a big part in all these forgeries, with everything from the camera and machine tools to computers making it progressively easier to counterfeit. Now there's a new boy on the block: the 3D printer.

Just take a camera, a computer, a software package, and see what you might replicate. And as the pixel count of cameras goes up, and the precision of the 3D printers improves, nothing is going to be safe.

To date, hobbyists are content to visit art galleries and museums and take pictures of famous sculptures on their phones, and then return home to print miniature replicas in plastic. But as the printers get bigger and better, I can't see it stopping there.

In industry we now have commercial-grade printing in plastics, metals and ceramics, while at the leading edge, organic moulding, extrusion and printing include the use of proteins and stem cells.

Some people like to refer to these devices as replicators in homage to Star Trek, but others object and stick with calling them 3D printers. Seems to me that the replicator camp may have a valid point.

A generation or two of camera and printer technology from now and we will be able to picture a sculpture with sufficient accuracy to be able to replicate every chisel mark and every scratch and imperfection.

Just 30 years ago none of us had access to a vast amount of all the music and movies, books and writings on the planet. Now we do. And in another 10 years we may be able to enjoy every great work of art in our homes and offices. Like books and music, they will cost virtually nothing.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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