3D printers, which create customized objects on demand, based on digital instructions, are quickly finding their way into large companies, university labs and home garages. Professionals and hobbyists alike can now design and make new devices without large amounts of money or specialized equipment.
The democratic nature of this technology makes it exciting for science and medicine, but it also opens several cans of worms, a panel of experts told a AAAS audience. Some of the most high-profile concerns, which have attracted the attention of lawmakers, relate to what criminals or terrorists might do with 3D printing capabilities. But, society will also have to wrestle with other issues, such as those related to consumer safety and intellectual property.
The full solutions are not yet clear, but the speakers at the 23 September event, which was organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, unanimously agreed that banning 3D printing should be off the table.
3D printing is part of a larger suite of technologies called advanced additive manufacturing, which encompasses everything from sensors, to data processing, to manufacturing techniques including laser cutting and computer numerical control (CNC) machining, which uses tools like lathes or mills that are robots themselves.
Many 3D printers work somewhat like inkjet printers do, depositing layers of material that can be plastic, metal or even living cells. Since the first demonstration of this technology in the 1980s, numerous 3D printers have come on the market, and more should be showing up within the next year as many of the original patents expire. A relatively sophisticated , extrusion-based printer is about $2,500-$3,000, and cruder models are available for as little as $300-$400, according to Michael Hopmeier, President of Unconventional Concepts, Inc. (Laser stereo lithography devices, the basis for most industrial systems, are about 10-100 times more expensive.)
Those who don't own a printer can design and order items from a company like Shapeways, which fabricates and ships objects based on customers' specifications. The company is now producing about 50,000 objects each month, according to Robert Schouwenburg, one of the company's cofounders.
3D printers are also being used, and even built from scratch, in environments that Rob Carlson, a principal at the strategy and consulting firm Biodesic, called "garage biology." In their personal labs, biology enthusiasts are using commercially available technology to print laboratory gear, and with home-built tissue printers they are patterning bacteria and mammalian cells, with talk of creating organs that might someday be transplantable. This sort of garage innovation, and the start-up companies that it gives rise to, has important implications for the economy: start-ups are responsible for 100% of net U.S. job creation, according to Carlson.
Last spring, news that a functioning plastic handgun had been created using a 3D printer, and that the file for making the gun was available online, led several city and state legislators to introduce bills banning 3D-printed guns.
Banning one type of 3D-printed object would be futile and could push 3D printing "underground," at the expense of important scientific and medical advances, the experts agreed.
"3D printing is not just a device, it's an entire ecosystem of contributing technologies that give new capabilities," said Melba Kurman, technology analyst and author of Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing.
And, 3D printing has already taken hold beyond the United States, including in Europe and China: "What I've learned from being in startups all my life is that whenever you try to push something away, for instance the copying of music, it will just move over somewhere else," said Schouwenburg.
"There is no physical way to control many of these technologies. And, if what you to do is then limit access to something that has no physical control, all you do is create black markets and underground use," said Carlson. "Security is not the same as law enforcement."
Although none of the proposals to ban 3D-printed guns ultimately became law, the speakers were concerned that similar, "fear-based" policy responses would stifle the culture of openness necessary for this technology to thrive. For example, Carlson has visited a garage biology lab in California that was operating in secrecy so as to avoid harassment by law enforcement, even though the research being conducted was entirely legal.
"That's not the kind of world we want to create for biology or 3D printing," he said. "We don't want people to be afraid of talking about what they're doing."
The panelists acknowledged, however, that 3D printing technology gives rise to safety and security issues that merit serious thought.
3D printers have been used, for example, to create keys that can open high-security locks. In theory, they could also be used to build advanced weapons or to counterfeit machinery parts intended to break and cause catastrophic failure.
Some security solutions may come in the form of the technology itself. For example, Microsoft recently demonstrated a technique for embedding microbubbles within 3D-printed objects, in patterns that can encode information. Such tags might potentially be used to trace the objects back to their source.
"What I'd like to do is enlist the technical community to start looking at these [security] problems and providing solutions, identifying ways to head off some of these potential problems before they actually manifest themselves," said Hopmeier.
Any regulatory responses should be based on sound science and technology, the speakers agreed.
Other concerns are emerging about what Kurman called the "consumer to consumer space," in which people sell 3-D-printed objects directly to each other. Without the regulatory oversight that currently accompanies most mass manufacturing, people may be selling products that aren't safe. In general, however, unsafe 3D printed products will not be created with an intent to harm, she said.
"It's important that people who are creating policy or interpreting what's happening in this space are clear on the fact that this marketplace needs thoughtful regulation, not a crackdown," Kurman said.
When lawsuits over unsafe 3-D printed products reach the courts, some of the existing legal structures will need updating. For example, Kurman asked, who is at fault if someone is harmed by a product they bought. Is it the designer? The materials provider? A company like Shapeways? Issues of copyright and intellectual property will also need revisiting, as the digital models for 3-D-printed objects can be shared widely online.
"There's a long chain of new people involved," said Kurman. "You can see that it's a new paradigm that needs to be thought through. There is going to be the equivalent of a ‘Napster moment' in consumer safety. It's a question of when."