Although the technology for 3D printing was first invented in the 1980s, it was not really until the past decade that the industry took off and 3D printers began to establish a foothold in the market. As with any new technology, when 3D printers first entered the market, affordability was the primary concern. However, the industry has reached the point where new advancements have allowed prices to drop and become affordable to everyday consumers. From toys to prosthetics, dental implants to organs, 3D printing and their products have started to make regular appearances in our everyday lives.
However, as the 3D printing market began to stagnate in 2015 with lower reported earnings and falling stock prices, critics reopened old wounds with previously disregarded issues and started to question how “revolutionary” 3D printing really was. People began to worry about intellectual property rights, specifically patents for designs. When file sharing services specific to 3D printing began to appear, enabling users to store and collect CAD files of other users, the worry grew. Counterfeiting, printing weapons, and creating drugs were all perceived as huge issues that plagued the industry. Furthermore, there were ethical concerns with printing organs. The legal ramifications of 3D printing began to hamper the progress of the industry. Two years later, these issues still remain, and the advancing technology has introduced additional considerations.
Gun control, for example, has always been a widely-debated issue in our country. Controversy over ownership, safety training, and vendor regulation has raised heated discussions, especially in recent years. The fact that 3D printing can enable the manufacture of untraceable firearms, weapons that would also be undetectable through airport security, raised serious safety concerns. Anyone could download schematics from online and build her own gun, all in just several hours. When the first 3D printed gun was made, it was very slow to use, unreliable, and inaccurate, but now, with today’s new printers and printing processes, the improvements allow for better production quality and a much more reliable, accurate firing weapon.
In response, in 2013 Congress renewed the Undetectable Firearms Act, a bill originally passed in 1988 in response to the Glock 17 that had plastic components. However, there are still many loopholes when it comes to 3D printed guns. Senate Democrats introduced a bill earlier this year that would require all 3D printed guns to have at least one primary component made from metal.
In addition, in 2015 in an interview with the design magazine Dezeen, famed pop artist Will.i.am expressed his worries regarding the 3D printing industry; specifically the fear that eventually we would be able to print humans. He called for the development of new morals, laws, and codes to address this fear. 3D printed human models have become a popular commercial product, and researchers have already printed fully functional organs with live cells. While some of his other statements call into question his actual understanding of the science and technology and his prediction is a bit of a stretch — even though we can print organs, printing a fully functional human being is entirely different and far into the future — Will.i.am does have a valid point; we need to create new rules to match the developing technology. Regarding 3D printing organs, bringing the project from the R&D stage into actual hospitals to use could not only relieve some burden from transplant lists, but also reduce organ rejection.
New applications for 3D printing continue to be developed. Though it has not yet created the third Industrial Revolution, it will significantly change our concept of manufacturing and production. Unlike the regular inkjet printer, the 3D printer has yet to become a common household appliance, but its decreasing cost and increasing functionality have made it a popular educational instrument and is beginning to become a factory tool that automates more production processes and allows for new production economies, and especially new production capabilities. We are now at the tipping point where 3D printing, especially in the form of additive manufacturing, can impact major changes to manufacturing in many industries.