3D printing and the potential for good and bad

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There seems to be no limit to the prospective applications for 3D printing, including the production of shoes, clothing, buildings – and now even food.

Last year Anjan Contractor (his real name), a mechanical engineer in Washington DC, won a $125,000 grant from NASA to enable him to build a prototype 3D printer designed to produce nutritious food for astronauts instead of the pre-packaged, freeze-dried or canned foods they’ve been getting so far.

Elsewhere, 3D printers are used to make artificial organs and “replacement parts” for the human body, be it titanium hip joints, dental crowns, hearing aid shells – and, in future, perhaps even bones and whole organs.

As 3D desktop printers are becoming more affordable, the likelihood of consumers using this technology privately is also increasing. And not only that – 3D printing will lead to many more changes in our lives and our supply chains including, for example, a reduction in transport volumes for ready-built parts at some point in time, because 3D printing offers the opportunity to move production closer to the actual consumer and produce goods virtually anywhere. And lower transport volumes may well result in a reduction in CO2 emissions, which would, of course, be a very welcome development.

But, as with other technologies, there are potential negative implications of 3D printing. Some criminals have used the technology to print card readers which, after being planted into cash machines, can “skim” people’s bank cards, enabling the criminals to extract bank details and “clone” cards. And in the US, an open source organisation called Defense Distributed haspublished blueprints for printing a gun online in 2013 – a move that was immediately criticised by anti-gun campaigners. This should make us think about other products that could be produced with 3D printing methods, particularly items that would normally fall under export control regulations.

What steps are being taken to protect the digital information about 3D printing blueprints for prototypes and components by aerospace and defence companies, for example? And what about the nuclear industry? In a paper published in the autumn 2015 edition of Strategic Trade Review, the author (Dr Grant Christopher, a research fellow at the International Centre for Security Analysis at King’s College London) examines the possibility of producing maraging steel (steels that are known for possessing superior strength and toughness without losing malleability) with 3D printing methods for use in a centrifuge – to enrich uranium. There may be a requirement for export controls of 3D printing technology in the future to prevent gun- and cybercrime as well as nuclear proliferation.

Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed, made headlines again in January 2016, when he announced plans to release blueprints publicly online for manufacturing semi-automatic rifles with 3D printing technology for just £100. This certainly raised major concerns in light of easy access for terrorist groups to equip themselves with powerful weapons without worrying about how to get them to where they are “needed”, because having the blueprints, a 3D printer, and the required materials is all they would require to produce them anywhere. Wilson is currently in the midst of a legal battle with the US government over the respective 3D code for this.    

But, as with other technologies, we shouldn’t blame 3D printing if individuals are misusing it for criminal purposes. After all, there is plenty of potential for good as the advances in the medical sector clearly demonstrate. Generally, this is surely an area to keep an eye on to see how it will develop over time, and how it will impact both our personal lives and global supply chains.

Darren Travers

Darren Travers is a Strategic Accounts Director at AEB, responsible for key accounts in the domestic and international markets.


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