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3-D Printing: Manufacturing Panacea or Infernal Contraption?

Ignore the hype about this new technology; let precaution be the watchword.

London’s Design Museum has mounted a terrific exhibit that uses the notion of an ecological backpack to illustrate the minerals and labor that go into our cell phones. The exhibit challenges visitors to think critically about the material physical reality of the wondrous gadgets that have mobilized billions of cell phone users.1

But the Museum has another, more celebratory exhibit that stands in sharp contrast to the eco-backpack presentation. This one is about a high-tech process the Museum immodestly calls “A New Industrial Revolution.” In this exhibit, there’s no hint that the new arrival could be anything but a panacea.2

The revolution it announces concerns something called “mass customization,” which is a method that takes generic commercial designs and individualizes them through computer-aided manufacture to better match customers’ needs.

What truly sets this technology apart is that it can be scaled to fit into an office or home, effectively turning them into mini-industrial factories. You need a part for your appliances, art works, or furniture? No problem. Just punch in the specifications and a machine will make the item for you. Hospitals can do the same to tailor hip replacements to patients’ individual characteristics, dentists to cater for particular gums and teeth.

Mass customization is being touted as a game-changing innovation—it will alter factory assembly, reorganize the global division of labor, and transform the way we make and consume just about anything that can be imagined. The Pentagon is developing its own uses to deliver customized weaponry to soldiers in the field.3

The machine that makes this all possible is the 3-D printer, which transforms digital files into material objects by shaping slices of molten plastic or powder. Sometimes known as “additive manufacturing,” 3-D printing is now all the rage. You can even buy a 3-D printer for as little as $650.4

The problem is that 3-D printing is starting to pose some serious challenges for law enforcement, consumers, and the environment.

The US government reacted with alarm after the technology was used to “print” the notorious “Liberator” or “Wiki Weapon.”5 You can read all about the gun at “Defense Distributed,” a group that sees itself as the inheritor of free-speech traditions dating from John Milton. Before these “heroes” of free thought were ordered to take the site down, 100,000 people had downloaded the instructions for making the weapon.6

In addition to First and Second Amendment questions and the threat of violence, 3-D printers also raise anxieties about counterfeit and contraband products and consumer safety.7

And while some analysts predict that 3-D printers will have a positive environmental effect, because they will reduce the amount of carbon used to transport goods over long distances,8 there is growing evidence that serious environmental risks come with these mobile manufacturing set-ups, with implications for occupational and amateur health and safety.

Many desktop 3-D printers on the market use heated thermoplastic extrusion and deposition, which can emit dangerous aerosol and particulate matter—a problem amplified when the machines lack proper exhaust ventilation or filtration systems.

A recent study found alarmingly high concentrations of ultrafine particles (UFP) in an office using 3-D printing. UFPs are very efficient at settling in our lungs and airways, and may produce high concentrations of other condensed compounds. The epidemiological record associates UFP concentrations with cardiorespiratory mortality, strokes, and asthma.9

As we’ve argued in previous columns, all new technologies that pose such health concerns should be appraised using the precautionary principle. This places the burden on proponents of the technologies to prove their environmental safety prior to their mass deployment. This is opposed to the more common cost-benefit analysis, which balances the pluses and minuses of consumer satisfaction versus risks to consumer health and safety.10

Unfortunately, all notes of precaution have been missing in the hype surrounding 3-D printing. At the Design Museum, for example, workers and visitors were encouraged to interact directly with the printers in the absence of any obvious warnings. The grand new cornucopia on display was all jolly good fun.

We urge more responsible, fully-rounded displays from museums, given their special educational responsibilities. And please check your celebratory endorsements of exhibits in which “The Future is Here.” These have become nothing more than generic advertisements for an industry that may deliver far more than new kinds of efficiency and customization. What we get could be very toxic indeed.