The Potential and Ethics of 3D Printing

By Kersley Fitzgerald

I believe that we are on the edge of a cultural phenomenon that will rival the Industrial Revolution. And it will happen fast. Faster than we can imagine. Within ten years, perhaps. The world will change.

I'm not talking about religion or war or politics or agriculture. I'm talking about a technology that will make industrial manufacturing of personal-use items almost completely disappear. It will save energy, reduce waste, increase recycling through the roof, and cost millions of low-paid overseas workers their livelihood.

It's the 3D printer.

The development of 3D printing began in the 1980s and is loosely based on inkjet paper printing. A 3D form (sometimes including multiple, interlocking parts) is designed on a computer, or an existing object is scanned into the computer which extrapolates the design from the scan. A printer then squirts "material" out of a nozzle much like a cake decorator uses a piping bag, one layer at a time, until the object is built up.

How will this change the world? So, we have these plastic cups. When we bought them, they were fine — a kind of translucent blue. Now they're all smudged and scratched and some of them have cracks. We also have some glasses that Dev had before we got married, and a mish-mash of plastic cups from various sporting events. I'd love to get rid of them all and get glasses in various sizes that match. Maybe even glasses that nest, so they don't take up much room. In a cool design. But it's wasteful to throw out perfectly good liquid delivery devices. And even though these are adorably cute and totally match my kitchen, it's not good stewardship to spend money on what I don't need.*

But a day is coming with I will be able to put all my old cups (not these old cups, but my future old cups) in a processor that will break them down into their base molecules. These molecules will be formed into little pieces of powder. The powder will go into a slurry or a bin. I'll surf the web for the pattern for these adorable glasses, and print out however many I want.

Or this: JT turns 13 in September. His bedroom reflects his transition-phase self with bins of Legos, K'Nex, and kids' meal toys that he barely touches. There will come a time when he can take all those toys and transform them into a foam-dart gun. Or a homework binder. Or a ridiculous hat that Dev won't let him wear out of the house.

We're already starting down this path — our local library district just opened a new library with a 3D printer that people can use. RadioLab, an NPR-distributed radio show, is providing plans so you can print replicas of some of the things they talk about, like a skull.

But beyond cups and hats, 3D printers are already making an impact. There are 50,000 war amputees in Sudan alone. An initiative called Project Daniel is printing prostheses for as little as $100 each.

I looked around. Here are some other things you could get right now thanks to 3D printing:
- A ceramic octopus egg cup. Of course, I'm allergic to eggs, but I love octopuses.
- Legos.
- A milk cup specifically designed for dipping cookies.
- A 24k-covered stainless steel fluted French horn mouth piece.
- Han Solo frozen in carbonite.
- A mount so I can use my Garmin on my bike.
- My own miniature, fully working Animaris Geneticus Parvus #5 as designed by Theo Jansen.
- And in the future, a house.

Materials have expanded beyond the original plastic, giving us a taste of the flexibility we'll have in the future:
- Glow in the dark plastic.
- Bronze and bamboo.
- Ceramic.
- Transparent plastics.
- Flexible plastic.
- Amazingly enough, sugar. To include, customized wedding cake toppers.
- Pizza.
- Coming soon, fabric made from natural latex, cotton, polyurethane, and teflon.

NASA's already working on a space-friendly recycling program. And EKOCYCLE is working on recycling plastics we already have into 3D printer material.

I am in awe and slightly obsessed with the concept of 3D printing (although I haven't done it yet). But I'm also wildly concerned. My plastic cups have more than scratches on them; they also have a little imprint that says "Made in China." Chinese manufacturing processes, as you know, are horrible. And a lot of the blame can be placed on the shoulders of Americans who like cheap blue cups. But those cheap blue cups also provide jobs for millions in China and Thailand and Vietnam and everywhere you can think of. And some of those jobs are dangerous and don't pay a fair wage. But with the rise of the home 3D printer, a lot of those jobs will just be gone.

There will be good things that come out of 3D printing. Less waste, less transportation costs, literal just-in-time manufacturing, more recycling. (Although a lot of this is dependent on future improvements to the process.) Space exploration will be tons easier; if a widget breaks, you make a new one instead of going without or making do. Military field hospitals will benefit greatly as they can print out the equipment and supplies they need to stabilize the wounded. Up to and including skin.

But 3D printing will also cause problems. For one, the online community has a hard enough time keeping track of copyrighted materials such as illustrations, writing, music, and photos. Files needed to print designs will be difficult if not impossible to protect from piracy.

I guess my biggest concerns are regarding employment and the distribution of wealth. If we can get the material recycling thing down, the cost of goods will be negligible. There will be no reason to outsource manufacturing of many items to other countries, and there will be very little industrial manufacturing domestically. Those who have access to 3D printing will have all the material goods they want. Those who don't will probably still be able to get the items, but will they have jobs to buy food? It's easy to say that 3D printing will bring advantages to the poor because their needs will be met more easily, but that didn't work very well when it came to food production and distribution.

We need people who understand this in the fray. American companies who use overseas manufacturing need to be mindful of the socio-economic implications if they abandon a large workforce. As Christ-followers, we're supposed to be the ones who are concerned about the poor and the just treatment of others. It would be a lot more effective if we got involved in the process before it caused a problem.

* Right?

Image Source:
This page: Richard van As's 3D printed hand
Index icons: The Quin.MGX lamp designed by Bathsheba Grossman

TagsCurrent-Issues  |  Hardships  |  Science-Creation

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Published 6-24-2014