Plane rides from Europe are long, so I usually pack a small library of things to read. Among that group was "The World in 2008" by The Economist, a special edition of the magazine where writers put on their pointed hats and try to predict what will happen in the coming year.
One of those predictions was that 3D printers would escape the design house and start to appear in regular consumer homes (which seemed a bit optimistic to me, as the "tipping point" to them was that the price tag would fall below $5000). 3D printers "print" three-dimensional objects by taking an object model passed in some format to the printer and laying it down layer by layer until complete. It's not exactly a rapid process (yet), as it proceeds at about 2 inches an hour. Then again, in college, I used to head off to the cafeteria while long papers were spooling on the dot matrix printer in my dorm room (I'm sure some of my younger readers are scratching their heads and wondering "what is dot matrix?" No, I wasn't friends with Neo.).
The "substrate" used to build the object is either a powder that is glued together by the printing process, or a plastic polymer that is excreted in tiny droplets and "cured" by an ultraviolet lamp. That made the Economist-provided example of "printed chainmail" somewhat amusing, as it inspired visions of thirty-something World of Warcraft fans running around in yellow plastic chainmail (the example photo was a plastic yellow cartoon sheep).
This is a long way from downloading a model for an iPhone and printing it in your home office. Then again, it's worth noting that circuit boards are "printed" to a certain extent. Imagine 15-20 years from now when this technology has gone through so many refinements that they make the current generation of 3D printers look like electric typewriters. Maybe home consumers will be carting around barrels of "toner" on wheeled trollies, which for the budget consumer, will be an off-brand barrel that they have to pour through special attachments into the the toner receptacle because printer manufacturers are trying to force you to buy only their branded pre-filled toner cartridges.
Timmy wants an XBOX VR, a version released in 2027 where you "jack-in" to the game and participate bodily through massive virtual reality worlds hosted by a souped-up XBOX Live. Dad buys the "model" online, sends it to his printer, and in a few minutes (print speeds have improved in 20 years), he has the device to install in the "fluffy chair" room (in a VR world, the most you would need would be big comfortable chairs to lay back in).
It's safe to say that many brick-and-mortar shops would be a thing of the past, except in cases of large objects which can't (yet) be printed through a 3D printer, or possibly food (though fans of Star Trek may remember the food replicators). Why go to a store when you can shop online and have it instantly "delivered" to your home?
It also means that practically everything would be intellectual property. If you can take a model of the iPhone and print it a billion times in 3D printers around the world, the physical object isn't, strictly speaking, valuable, since anyone can reproduce it. What is valuable is the design of the iPhone, as represented by a "model" that is sent to printing devices.
How would companies protect that? Would large networks of "model traders" exist online trading hacked copies that removed corporate attempts at a 3D model variant of DRM? Would companies have any more success than today's media companies at stopping illegal copying of their property?
Would Richard Stallman, author of the GPL and father of the free software movement, make any exceptions to his general dislike of intellectual property?
Side Note: See the new movie, "I Am Legend." I saw it last night. It will scare the bejeesus out of you.