Barriers and Challenges to Personal Manufacturing

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  • BARRIERS AND CHALLENGES: WHAT STANDS IN OUR WAY? By Hod Lipson & Melba Kurman. [email protected]. pp. 75+



Hod Lipson & Melba Kurman:

Consumer Safety and Quality Control

"Unlike other personal technologies, a personal computer or cell phone, a personal fabrication machine can physically harm its user since its use involves potentially hazardous materials and sharp parts or lasers.

In addition to hazardous production environments, once regular people and small businesses gain access to their own powerful design and manufacturing tools, they will be able to make any object they desire, including object that are dangerous, counterfeited or shoddy. Poorly made or inaccurate machine parts pose a potential safety risk for their buyers. Faulty, low quality medical equipment or toxic toys are also a potential risk. Finally, highly skilled designers and tinkerers will be able to make powerful weaponry once they have access to tools that used to be limited to carefully selected manufacturing companies. Once electronic blueprint designs for hand grenades and guns are available, it won’t be long until enterprising users or terrorists start to manufacture their own.

Finally, liability issues need to be addressed. If a person makes and gives her friend a custom-designed object that later harms someone, who is liable? The designer of the electronic blueprints? The person who actually manufactured the object? The company that made and sold the personal fabrication machine? Or whoever provided the material for the object? Since the players in the personal fabrication ecosystem tend to be a decentralized web of loosely connected individuals and small companies, it’s difficult to pin down who’s accountable for a shoddy or harmful product."

Hardware-Related Challenges

"Technical challenges shared by all varieties of personal-scale manufacturing machines are listed below.

  • Compared to their factory counterparts, personal-scale manufacturing machines

take much longer to produce an identical object.

  • DIY hobbyist kits are the predominant source for people to procure personal-scale

manufacturing machines today. As a result, there’s as significant amount of undocumented variation in machines which makes version control and standardization difficult, even in models purchased from the same company.

  • Factories enjoy elaborate, global supply chains that bring together needed raw

materials. Personal manufacturers would not have access to the same networks, nor would they purchase enough materials to enjoy economies of scale.

  • Factory manufacturing machines are run by skilled and certified operators.

However, many hobbyists and early adopters lack the technical training required to do high-level troubleshooting or repairs of their own machines."

Hardware and Software Standards

"The emerging market for makers of personal fabrication machines is fragmented and decentralized. Equally fragmented is the marketplace for electronic blueprint designs. Standards, or a lack thereof, are another major barrier facing machine makers, software designers and consumers. Machine parts for personal-scale manufacturing machines are not registered in an official, centralized parts registry. As a result, similar to the early days of the automobile, it’s difficult to buy standard replacements parts for a 3D printer or home-scale laser cutter.

If a sizeable small-scale manufacturing ecosystem is to emerge, interoperability issues must be addressed. Standard, interoperable machine parts and software design files need to be defined. Electronic blueprints designs exist in a broad range of different file formats including some that may not be compatible with a particular type of personal fabrication machine.


A large number of CAD software companies offer design software that relies on a variety of proprietary file formats."

Version Control

"Due to the hobbyist culture underlying emerging personal design and manufacturing technologies, version control remains an unresolved challenge for both software and hardware."

IP Issues

Intellectual property issues are a leading concern of businesses in the personal manufacturing space.

  • Aggregators are concerned about being held liable for

contributory intellectual property infringement since their web sites serve as storefronts and repositories for illegal copies of patented or copyrighted designs.

  • Designers worry that their

custom designed objects will be too easy to copy, or that lesser designers will sell counterfeit, black market blueprints under their more famous brand name.

  • Consumers and businesses worry that they may unintentionally purchase a shoddy,

counterfeit blueprint or invest a significant amount of money buying a product or machine part that later turns out to be in violation of another company’s patent.

  • Makers run the risk of creating an object or product that unwittingly infringes

someone else’s patent or copyright.


The personal fabrication process spans both the digital and physical worlds and involves two components that involve intellectual property issues: the electronic blueprints and the resulting physical object. While one can protect a digital blueprint using digital rights management, this approach offers only a partial solution, since once the electronic blueprint is put to work fabricating physical objects, it can be used to produce as many objects as the maker wants to make. The resulting physical objects, unlike a music file, cannot be digitally signed.


Even if someone were to legally purchase an electronic blueprint, additional intellectual property issues could arise depending on what the buyer does with the object he or she creates from the blueprint. If a user buys a legal copy of a blueprint, makes a tiny modification and then re-sells huge quantities of that object, is that a violation of copyright law? Or, if a user buys a blueprint and uses the resulting object in a novel way, does that qualify the object for a brand new patent? The production of replacement parts for commercially produced, patented product on personal fabrication machines offers another potentially troublesome IP-related grey area.


Another troublesome complication is what sort of IP protection would be appropriate for personal manufacturing technologies: copyrights, patents,, or a blend of both? A related question is how U.S. federal law and business models will address homebased, non-commercial reproduction of commercial product and machine parts. The scope of copyright and patent protection must be addressed. For example, if an electronic blueprint is copyright protected, it’s not yet clear whether that copyright protection extends to the resulting physical product. The ability of personal fabrication technologies, particularly 3D printers, to manufacture items out of a broad range of material will also likely trigger new IP disputes about what constitutes a “novel” object or product.

So far, companies have not had much success preventing widespread copying of digital media such as commercial software, music and videos. Personal fabrication technologies will likely offer yet another battlefield over control of IP rights.


Attorneys at the Creative Commons are working with the personal fabrication community to sketch out an equivalent open source licensing infrastructure for hardware based on the success of open source software licensing models." ( )

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