As with any new technology, it's easy to get swept up in the benefits of 3D printing. It opens up a world of new possibilities for all industries, and stands to lessen transportation costs, environmental impacts, waste, and reliance on corporations by enabling the maker movement.
But 3D printers are still potentially hazardous, wasteful machines, and their societal, political, economic, and environmental impacts have not yet been studied extensively. To make sure you aren't thrown off guard by the conversations to come, we've compiled a list of 10 things you need to know about the dangers and potentially negative impacts of 3D printers.
1. 3D printers are energy hogs
When melting plastic with heat or lasers, 3D printers consume about 50 to 100 times more electrical energy than injection molding to make an item of the same weight, according to research by Loughborough University. In 2009, research at MIT's Environmentally Benign Manufacturing program showed that laser direct metal deposition (where metal powder is fused together) used hundreds of times the electricity as traditional casting or machining. Because of this, 3D printers are better for small batch runs. Industrial-sized 3D printers may not be the answer to lessening our use of coal power any time soon.
2. Unhealthy air emissions
3D printers may pose a health risk when used in the home, according to researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The emissions from desktop 3D printers are similar to burning a cigarette or cooking on a gas or electric stove. The 2013 study was the first to measure these airborne particle emissions from desktop 3D printers. While heating the plastic and printing small figures, the machines using PLA filament emitted 20 billion ultrafine particles per minute, and the ABS emitted up to 200 billion particles per minute. These particles can settle in the lungs or the bloodstream and pose health risk, especially for those with asthma.
3. Reliance on plasticsOne of the biggest environmental movements in recent history has been to reduce reliance on plastics, from grocery bags to water bottles to household objects that can be made from recycled materials instead. The most popular—and cheapest—3D printers use plastic filament. Though using raw materials reduces the amount of waste in general, the machines still leave unused or excess plastic in the print beds. PLA is biodegradable, but ABS filament is still the most commonly used type of plastic. The plastic byproduct ends up in landfills. If 3D printing is going to be industrialized, that byproduct or other recycled plastic needs to be reused.
4. IP and licensing deals
In January, 3D Systems acquired Gentle Giant Ltd., which owned the licensing rights to toy franchises such as The Hobbit, The Walking Dead, Harry Potter, Alien, and Star Wars. Gartner has said that companies may lose at least $100 billion in four years to licensing or IP owners. 3D printing will change the business market—and the black market for these items—and the legislation will have to rush to catch up. This potential digital piracy situation is comparable to the way the internet challenged the movie and music industries for copyrights, trademarks, and illegal downloads.
5. Gun control loopholes
The first successful 3D printed gun is old news, but its ramifications are very important. Companies are popping up around the world, attempting to sell these guns and/or the CAD designs for them. Engineering firm Solid Concepts has even fired rounds out of the first 3D printed metal gun. Congress' Undetectable Firearms Act, which bans guns that can't be detected by metal detectors or x-ray scanners, was renewed for 10 years. It left a loophole in the law, however: 3D printed guns with a tiny piece of metal aren't banned by the Act. Legislators are attempting to close that loophole now, after Congress ignored the issue for quite some time, with special requirements for printed guns.
6. Responsibility of manufacturers
Weapons can be 3D printed. So can safety equipment such as helmets, wheels for bikes, and toys for small children. Of course there is the issue of intellectual property and trademark, but the larger issue involves responsibility. If a person shoots a gun and harms or kills someone, stabs someone with a 3D printed knife, or breaks their neck while riding on a bike with a 3D printed helmet, who is held accountable? The owner of the printer, the manufacturer of the printer, or the irresponsible person who thought it was a good idea to produce and use an untested product?
7. Bioprinting ethics and regulationThe conversations about the ethics of bioprinting have already begun. Organovo is printing liver cells as well as eye tissue cells in a partnership with the National Eye Institute and National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Scientists have also proposed mixing human stem cells with canine muscle cells to create enhanced organ tissue. Printing cartilage is still the most realistic type of bioprinting, and printing whole organs is still many years away, but 3D printing is growing in medicine quite rapidly. Conversations about the moral, ethical, and legal issues surrounding bioprinting have started, but they will inevitably cause a lot more controversy as it becomes more commonplace.
8. Possibility of 3D printed drugs
Assembling chemical compounds on a molecular level using a 3D printer is possible. A researcher at the University of Glasglow created a prototype of a 3D "Chemputer" that makes drugs and medicine. He wants to revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry by allowing patients to print their own medicine with a chemical blueprint they get from the pharmacy. Of course, this is a very long way off, but it stands to enable DIY chemists to create anything from cocaine to ricin.
9. National security risks
A white paper released from the National Defense University highlighted national security risks from 3D printing technology. Since there will be significant legal and economic implications on the business sector and 3D printers offer the ability to produce a wide range of objects that cannot be controlled yet, the paper noted that there are definitely national security risks that need to be analyzed in the near future.
10. Safety of items that come into contact with foodYou can print out a fork or spoon with your MakerBot, but if you use ABS plastic, it is not BPA-free. Luckily, new filaments that are safer to put in your mouth are being created for this specific reason, but they aren't widely available yet. Many 3D printers have spaces where bacteria can easily grow if they aren't cleaned properly, as well. In order to more safely-produced 3D printed food and kitchenware, there may be a need for an FDA-approved machine. People probably don't want to eat genetically-engineered pizza off of toxic plates.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.