3D Printing: Too good to be true?

Opinion

You may not know it, but there is a 3D printer located at the bottom of Roberts sometimes used to print the occasional pen holder, whistle, or game piece.

If one were to pick up one of these items, they would see that it is not one solid object but instead comprised of multiple thin layers of a plastic-like material fused together. In a way, the layers are a fitting representation for 3D printing: when considering 3D printing, one must also consider its nuanced layers of ethical and industrial implications. Though the shiny, much touted benefits of new devices and innovations are tempting, proceed with caution: there is much more to consider before simply declaring 3D printing to represent an overwhelming benefit to society.

The very fact that 3D printing is a technology of unparalleled accessibility and ease of use embodies both its benefits and potential harms. The process of 3D printing begins with a file, typically a 3D model. This file must be uploaded onto a certain software platform, but after this, little technical finesse is needed. Designing a functional model itself may be difficult, but taking it and using it is as easy as printing out any other thing.

In fact, the Smithsonian just recently touted its 3D printing of artifacts in its collections. That’s a good thing – the technology has democratized and promoted access to museum collections. But what about, let’s say, employing the technology to avoid the expense and logistics otherwise involved in buying a gun when you instead could print it – and in fact, one can.

A number of 3D printed guns have been produced; not toy guns, real guns, capable of firing real bullets. This raises the question: what information can be relayed? To what extent can freedom of speech be claimed? Where does the buck stop? Well, one might argue, bomb instructions have been posted online, and those haven’t been taken down, so why take down gun making instructions?

It’s the idea that 3D printing is a technology of unparalleled accessibility and ease of use. It is neither labor nor economically intensive. When Timothy Mcveigh and Terry Nichols assembled the explosives later used in the Oklahoma City bombings, they were forced to rob homes to supplement the expenses, and had to assume numerous false identities to secure the nessecary materials

A number of 3D printed guns have been produced; not toy guns, real guns, capable of firing real bullets. This raises the question: what information can be relayed?

When someone 3D prints a gun, they do not have to spend exorbitant amounts of money, nor disguise themselves to secure dangerous materials. And therefore a choice must be made: security at the expense of freedom, or vice versa. The process of 3D printing, as mentioned before, is non-labor intensive. Only one person is required to operate the machine. It is therefore prudent not only to consider ethical concerns, but industrial concerns as well.

While 3D printing currently exists in its infancy, technology advances at an exponentially increasing pace, and there is little to suggest this breakneck progress will slow any time soon. When 3D printers are able to match the output capacity of larger, more complex machines, what will happen? What are the consequences when the same products that can be produced either in a financially burdening, resource hungry factory instead are produced from the comfort of one’s home?

While one person cannot cripple entire industries, the combined efforts of a million startups can certainly create a substantial economic dent in the sides of America. This means, once again, the necessity of considering how to balance freedom of creation and entrepreneurship with larger societal concerns.

Thankfully, there is still time to come to a decision. 3D printing is far from perfect in its current state, with the main flaw being that printing itself is incredibly slow. However, this does not mean we can stand back and wait until matters are pressing. Printers are only going to get faster and cheaper. It is in our interest to sort out these conundrums sooner rather than later, lest things spiral out of control before we know it.

A million startups can certainly create a substantial economic dent in the sides of America. This means considering how to balance freedom of creation with larger societal concerns.

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