How the Photocopier Changed the Way We Worked—and Played

Decades before 3-D printers brought manufacturing closer to home, copiers transformed offices, politics and art

Xerox founder Joe Wilson with the 914, which could make copies up to 9 by 14 inches. (Courtesy of Xerox Corporation)
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There’s plenty of evidence that 3-D printing is good, too. Already many industries are using it to create sophisticated and highly customized products. Surgeons can create 3-D-printed bone grafts modeled off someone’s scanned body, and dentists are fashioning the wax models for crowns and bridges perfectly suited for a patient’s mouth. Chefs are experimenting with 3-D printing foods for aesthetic effect, and last November, astronauts aboard the International Space Station began using a 3-D printer to make a tool they needed.

But how might 3-D printing affect everyday life for the rest of us? It’s hard to tell right now, because they’re still slow devices—it can take hours to print a complex object—and even the cheapest ones are still too pricey for mass adoption. Most printers don’t come with a scanner attached, so using them for everyday duplication is still tricky. That may soon change, because large firms like Hewlett-Packard are entering the field—and chains like Staples are beginning to put 3-D printers in stores, giving people a Kinko’s-like access to this odd new technology. In a few years, getting a 3-D print or copy made might take only a few minutes and a few dollars at a store near you.

At that point, one can imagine hitting the Xerox 914 moment—when everyday people suddenly discover the pleasures of replicating objects. We might start scanning everyday objects that we often misplace—the battery-access covers on remote controls, crucial hinges or pieces of electronics—so that when things go missing, we can run off another copy. Maybe we’ll scan sentimental objects, like family jewelry, so that when future 3-D printers can affordably produce complex, metal forms, we can make highly realistic copies of these mementos, too. And maybe we’ll also use 3-D printers for practical jokes and pranks—printing rude objects we find online and leaving them on friends’ desks at work. We might get a new form of information overload: offices and homes crammed with too many weird, junky printed trinkets.

As with the photocopier, 3-D printers mean people will copy other people’s intellectual property. Websites where people share their 3-D models already have plenty of objects riffing off pop culture: You can print a chess set that uses the Minions from Despicable Me, or various Transformers-like characters. And there are subversive 3-D objects being printed and duplicated now, too—including the parts to make plastic guns that authorities fear can’t be detected in airport scanners. With 3-D printers, physical objects become just another form of information, to be traded and swapped, moving around beneath authorities’ eyes.

“With 3-D printers, once someone has scanned one item, everyone can have it,” says Michael Weinberg, a vice president of Public Knowledge, a digital-technology think tank. For now, the powers that be are withholding judgment. There have been only a few incidents of firms issuing legal warnings to people for making copies of their intellectual property. “We have not seen a total industry freakout yet,” Weinberg notes.

Even legislators haven’t regulated 3-D printers, realizing they have many potential good uses. One area that is starting to cause consternation, though, is those guns. It’s not illegal to make your own gun, but the ease of gun-printing—and the plastic nature of 3-D-printed weapons—has prompted a flurry of legislation. In December 2013, Congress extended the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which requires weapons to be detectable in scanning machines. In practice, it likely means adding enough metal to a 3-D-printed gun that it shows up on, say, an airport X-ray machine. Maryland is considering a bill that would outright ban printed guns. Philadelphia passed one as well and, in California, the legislature passed a law that was later vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Our society’s reputation for copying and distributing edgy material precedes us, it seems—and is moving from the second dimension to the third.

Editor's note: This story originally said that the mimeograph machine used "smelly ink." In fact, that was the spirit duplicating or "ditto" machine.

This story also originally said that custom cookie cutters at Whisk could be ready the same day they were ordered. Currently, custom orders take one to two weeks to arrive. 

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