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The dangers of 3-D printing

Use 3-D printing to build your own storage array. Or get a 3-D printer and watch your storage array fill up with data.

Use 3-D printing to build your own data storage array. Or get a 3-D printer and watch your storage array fill up with data. Jon Toigo provides his thoughts on the subject.

A while back I read an article in a tech publication that discussed the concerns of toy companies regarding knock-offs of their popular toys being made by do-it-yourselfers using 3-D printing. The article detailed how an increasingly inexpensive 3-D printer -- capable of converting a computer-aided design (CAD) model of an object into a physical (three-dimensional) version of the object by depositing layer upon layer of hardening plastic material -- was being used to "print" things like Lego building blocks and Hasbro Transformers characters. I kept the article in my file folder of topics to track just in case I ever needed another Optimus Prime figure.

I was reminded of this clipping when my dear wife told me recently that she wanted one (a 3-D printer, not a Transformers figure) as a holiday or birthday present. It shouldn't have surprised me that she was already expert on the processes for "dimension layer resolution and material deposition." And since she was already pretty conversant with a number of 3-D imaging and drawing programs that we use in our animated video work, she knew all the software and hardware elements required to make a working system.

She argued for the 3-D printer with all the enthusiasm of a kid asking permission to keep a stray dog: "Assemble-it-yourself printers run about $500, while a good hobby-grade printer is about $1,000, and it will make its own replacement parts if anything breaks down." This was strangely similar to the arguments I once made to get my parents to approve spending money on an early hobbyist computer kit.

"The files for 3-D are comparatively small," she continued, "ranging from a few hundred kilobytes to a gigabyte or 10 for very complex CAD models. So, our current video-editing storage array is more than adequately sized to hold the data."

I was delighted to hear her trying to justify the purchase in terms of its impact on our data storage infrastructure, and so charmed by her approach that I stopped myself from observing that storage requirements might be a bigger issue if she develops her skills to a point where she wants to print a T-1000 (a mimetic poly-alloy assassin robot from Terminator 2: Judgment Day) or a life-sized electric car.

Another potential rub: copyright infringement. We all know the bad things that happen when your ISP gives your IP address (and home address information) to the Recording Industry of America, Motion Picture Association of America or to an attorney who has built a cottage industry around extorting money from copyright violators. The bootleg copy of Mars Attacks! or the bit torrent of "Slim Whitman Greatest Hits" you forgot you stored on a hard disk all those years ago are all it takes to see thousands of dollars drained from your kids' college funds and deposited into the coffers of an aggrieved media conglomerate.

What if the object involved in your 3-D printing project is itself copy protected? While you may be safe for now (in 2010, the European Court of Justice said Lego couldn't trademark its product shape), lobbyists for manufacturers of everything from toys to torque wrenches are seeking to expand laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to cover the shapes and designs of their wares. To give the effort teeth, they seek to extend liability for infringement to those who enable it as well as those who actually do the deed of printing.

What has this to do with storage? Is someone "printing" disk drives using Seagate designs? Not that I know of. These 3-D printing files may comprise yet another kind of data that needs to be spotted and segregated for review by risk managers in your business to reduce exposure to potential legal prosecution.

More directly, 3-D printing may become a convenient way to generate memory chips comprising wafers of conductive and non-conductive polymers (plastics), an idea advanced by the three researchers who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Who knows, you may need an alternative to gallium arsenide chips in the not too distant future to protect against infestations of GFAJ-1, a new life form discovered by NASA at California's Mono Lake that appears to digest arsenic to sustain its vital functions. Happy New Year.

About the author:
Jon William Toigo is a 30-year IT veteran, CEO and managing principal of Toigo Partners International, and chairman of the Data Management Institute.

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