Additive manufacturing (AM) is a rapidly growing area with an 4x increase in revenue between 2010 and 2015. It has sparked massive interest and a large following, however it is not without fault and there have been calls to regulate its development and the parts it produces. The common argument for regulation of AM is the possibility to produce weaponry at home, however this subject has been covered on multiple occasions, so other issues will be covered. Regulation covers a broad range of possibilities ranging from updating IP laws to limitation or altogether termination of the advancement of AM.
Against Regulation: Creativity, accessibility and regulation enforcement
One of the key aspects of AM is the creative freedom that it allows. The accessibility, in particular the increasing affordability of the printers themselves due to its expanding global industry, leads to growing public interest in AM and wider aspects of engineering. In addition, software and hardware use is intuitive, meaning that anyone, from students to professionals, can pick it up – possibly leading to general increase of the skill level of the workforce.
Regulation poses a threat to this accessibility and hinders the possibilities for innovation. Imposing the presence of regulatory bodies to approve printers, CAD files and related items will incur administration costs and increase the time to market for new products, while digital copyright could inadvertently give powerful companies the legal power “to claw useful objects out of the public domain”. Additionally, it makes it harder to import and export the technology; in parts of the world with limited accessibility to medical equipment, for example, AM provides a way for the people to access the care they need. In the Gaza strip the current cost of printing a stethoscope is only 30 cents, compared to a month of a doctor’s salary to purchase outright. Regulation could inhibit such breakthroughs in the poorer parts of the world, disallowing the full ethical benefit that this technology can bring.
Alongside the disadvantages of regulation, the challenge of enforcing it creates further problems. The digital nature of AM makes it incredibly difficult to stop the sharing of copyrighted files online, seen already with music, movies and software. Undoubtedly, heavy regulation would seem to be impossible if file sharing websites like Napster and Piratebay are still prevalent after years of legal adjustments and internet security changes attempting to prohibit their usage. This difficulty of enforcement has led to deterrent policies; in cases where infringement is caught, current copyright laws can lead to excessively harsh penalties to individuals, which are “grossly excessive when compared with actual damages” even for defendants who present plausible fair use defenses. The proliferation of AM for public use will potentially lead to an unprecedented increase of legal action against individuals with disproportionately severe consequences. Were this to happen, it may even be what forces the necessary changes to copyright law for the post-modern technological world – though of course with many unfortunate individuals bearing the brunt of that disciplinary action.
For Regulation: Safety and IP infringement
One issue with unregulated AM is the question of how safe the item is and how easily CAD files can be distributed and used without infringement on patents. It is usually an enthusiastic hobbyist who designs and uploads the CAD file, not a qualified professional. One can therefore imagine that rigorous safety tests has not been fully carried out. So when the printed object fails, it could harm and possibly even lead to death. That’s why regulations should be implemented in the distribution and printing of 3D objects.
Of course, one could argue more regulation will limit people’s accessibility, but are we willing to sacrifice safety for the sake of accessibility? Would you rather have 1000 low-quality, brittle leg prosthetics, or have 10 high-quality, durable ones? Especially with objects concerning the safety of the user in high-risk activities, such as a bottle holder clip which could break off in a car and block the break pedal or the use of safety helmets, this issue becomes even more pertinent. Duty ethics argues that the act of regulating AM is a good action in of itself, because it protects the users from possible harm. Even if this action as a consequence alienates certain groups, it ensures user safety. Therefore regulating bodies; the safety commission, government and even printer suppliers themselves, should take moral responsibility in ensuring no harm comes to users by creating and enforcing laws for 3D printed objects.
The possibility to produce small plastic parts at home, such as zip ties and replacement parts for household items could have a large impact on the companies that produce these items. Why bother leaving the house when you can just easily print from the comfort of your own garage? Whilst regulation with patent law is an option, it is increasingly difficult to regulate 3D printed builds with the current Intellectual Property (IP) laws. Copyright does not apply to functional items and it needs to be proved that the patent is known about for it to be violated. It has been suggested that regulation could be achieved without limiting AM by producing a database of CAD files alongside the current 2D drawings of patents.
In addition, printing for private use isn’t considered an infringement. This leads to one possible future for AM, ‘After the Siege’, a short story in which home use of AM has desolated all patent reliant companies and so its use has been outlawed leading to underground printing rings. Whilst extreme, it paints a picture of how disruptive AM could be to the economy and society if left unregulated.
For the safety of users and security of patent reliant business, some element of regulation is vital to the ethical growth of 3D printing; however it should be kept sufficiently open to allow the public to benefit. This “enables precisely the kind of creation and progress of the useful arts and sciences that intellectual property is supposed to foster”