The potential nightmare of “democratizing” 3D printing

In the 3D printing world, we are in a period of thinking only good things about this technology. However, for many engineers, the idea of “democratizing” the design and manufacture of parts brings up nightmare scenarios.

For example, let’s say an average person wants to print a replacement part for their car (this is a critical part to the operation of the car) to fix it because the CAD drawing of a similar part is available on the Internet. This part also has a large number of “likes” associated with it, so they assume everything will work out just fine. So they print the part out using a plastic material, make the repairs, and proceed to drive. Do you think they considered that their 3D printed part has an MTBF of less than 1/10th of what it should be? Do you think they have analyzed what high temperatures will do to that part? Would you willingly be a passenger in that car?

Another example. What about the guy who thinks he’s a mechanic, has some knowledge of how things go together, but is not the most ethical person—he just wants to cut costs and make money? He prints parts from CAD drawings obtained on the Internet and uses them on his customers. How do we trace that? How do we handle negligence and ill-intent when everyone, anyone, could be a parts manufacturer?

Will the democratization of manufacturing take us back to a “wild, wild West” scenario where anything goes?

Or is this merely alarmist thinking? You might think so, but engineers are trained to think of what could go wrong and design so that such nightmare scenarios cannot happen. Engineers admit that even with their training and experience, it takes many hours of tweaking a design before it will work properly under the conditions needed. Designing is not simple, despite some of the blogs and marketing conversation going on throughout the Internet.

Now, if someone wants to use 3D printing for artwork, great. Jewelry? Excellent. Dinnerware, doorknobs, glasses frames, chess pieces, and so on; wonderful. For anything that is whole and complete in itself—that is not part of system—then 3D printers can be a wonderful tool. Gears and sprockets—depends on the application and the material used. Chains—depends on the application and material used. Pumps (and so on), those components depend on the application and material used. Anything that may be crucial to the operation of something else may require some restrictions.

While it’s great to bring the ability to create more things into the hands of those who did not have a simple or affordable way to create, should we put limits on who can print certain designs? Society will have to answer the question that democratization has raised: Do we let anyone print anything? Or do we wait for Darwin’s law to tell us what to limit?

Leslie Langnau
llangnau@wtwhmedia.com

www.makepartsfast.com

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Allow me to bring up a counterpoint to your argument.

You mention "democratizing" of 3D printing as something that would need to be controlled.  How would such control be brought about?  3D printing has already joined up with the Open Source community, through RepRap and other systems, there is literally no way to determine how many 3D printers are in existence, as hobbyists build more in garage and basement workshops every day.

The genie is already out of the bottle, there is no way to stuff it back in.  All we can do now is caveat emptor.  There are already laws in place to protect people from the unethical mechanic who is printing parts out of unsuitable materials and/or to looser tolerances than OEM replacements; every reputable auto repair center has a legally minding warranty printed right on their receipts that they use OEM-certified parts in all their repairs.  The mechanic making parts on a RepRap may get away with it for a little while, but it will come back to haunt him, especially if a personal injury is the result of him using 'counterfeit' parts. 

(I have had a personal experience that dovetails into this example.  On my Jeep, one of the brackets that hold the 'stabilizer arms' onto the front axle has rusted through and became detached from the axle shell.  My mechanic would not weld it back on, and he pointed out that no reputable body shop in the city would weld it back on either, as the quality of welding on the undercarriage could not be confirmed, and no place would want to risk being liable for an 'aftermarket' weld on a critical component.  The search for a new front axle assembly took some time, and expanded into a nationwide hunt for the part.  When I got a lead that a relative of a coworker was disposing of an old Jeep, and might have the axle I needed, my mechanic informed me that they could not instal any part that did not come through their supply chain, again, for liability reasons.)

As for the DIY people, making parts for themselves without confirming that the part is fit for use, there are laws to punish them for their mistakes.  An unauthorized 3D printed part is no different from any other counterfeit part.

That's why I mentioned that Darwin's law may end up being the one we use.  While I think something may need to be set up to protect the unsuspecting, or just the uninformed, I'm not sure what "rules" are needed, and I'm not sure I want the government or lawyers to step in and decide those rules.  The engineering groups on various Linked In additive manufacturing sites are discussing this issue now, and they bring up the point that this is not an easy fix. Especially with open source.  The average consumer-type user is the one who could get hurt.  Will engineers have to go even further to "idiot-proof" their designs now? Who knows. 

I'd have to say that I disapprove of the alarmist headline.

ANY technology can be misused for any number of negative purposes. 

I think any group or individual considering "controls" on innovation for reasons of safety will firstly find those efforts futile in face of the global participants- in literally thousands of jurisdictions, and secondly, exhibit astonishing arrogance in even considering that a few foolish or greedy or ignorant individuals actions (which are hypothetical at this point) demand any kind of response.

We are at the beginning of a new way of converting innovation into objects - patents will first be violated, then shown to be useless in constraining knowledge. It is a "disruptive" technology - engineering will still have the constraints of the laws of physics and materials science - other laws are more malleable: Consider: after a 30 year 2 trillion $ effort by the U.S. gov't to control drugs in our society - two of my friends are trying to get teenage children not to smoke dope - and failing - because its pervasively available.

A more relevant example: copyright violations relating to music and video - I only know a small percentage of people my age who worry weather the media is legitimate and I'd be hard pressed to find a 20-something who CARES if its legit. 

Physical objects are likely to follow the same arc as copyrighted media, and the response will be just as ineffective, a flurry of court cases, some legislative juggling - and still, things will get copied. The greatest service these "concerned parties" could perform is build a digital product specification that is universally interchangeable - with detailed materials requirements so that a conscientious maker can fabricate a part properly if they so choose. In other words: embrace the change, rather than attempt to preserve today's and yesterdays solution.

The next logical step beyond 3-d printing is small scale full fabrication (metal parts) and it will happen fairly soon.

here is a very early step in that direction: www.cubespawn.com

Why and Why not?

Think about a scenario when an essential part on manufacturing line fails. The 'lead time' to procure that part is 3 days. I can't have my manufacturing line down for 3 days. The supplier ships me a CAD drawing or maintenance guy downloads it from internet. Print the part though it works for 1/10th of the time I save Mn $$$$ in production loss and after receipt of original part I just replace it with new one!

I think one should judge it based on situation. There is no 'yes' or 'no' answer! 

Though I think the 3D printing technology is yet to evolve to replace 100% characteristics of original part but I am optimist that one day it will. It cannot possibly replace the 'mass manufacturing' components due to manufacturing economics,  but yes specialty made and low volume componets have a good case.

Till that time let the situation unfold!

First, I'm reporting what your fellow engineers are discussing.  Many of them view the developments as alarming.  I can see their points.  Engineers used to be trained to examine what can go wrong--this was standard practice in the engineering curriculums of my time. I'm not sure it is still so.  

I've noticed for some time that people under the age of 30 take a very different view and seem to see boundaries and limitations as something to deliberately break through.  Maybe you're right, maybe not.  

I think most engineers would prefer not to see government intervention in establishing rules and use and so on.  I don't think they want lawyers to do so either, but ...

This goes into a philosophical direction, but can you trust people to do the right thing?  A small percentage will not, and unfortunately we have ended up with  overreaching rules for everyone because of the actions of a few.  

James Jones said:

I'd have to say that I disapprove of the alarmist headline.

ANY technology can be misused for any number of negative purposes. 

I think any group or individual considering "controls" on innovation for reasons of safety will firstly find those efforts futile in face of the global participants- in literally thousands of jurisdictions, and secondly, exhibit astonishing arrogance in even considering that a few foolish or greedy or ignorant individuals actions (which are hypothetical at this point) demand any kind of response.

We are at the beginning of a new way of converting innovation into objects - patents will first be violated, then shown to be useless in constraining knowledge. It is a "disruptive" technology - engineering will still have the constraints of the laws of physics and materials science - other laws are more malleable: Consider: after a 30 year 2 trillion $ effort by the U.S. gov't to control drugs in our society - two of my friends are trying to get teenage children not to smoke dope - and failing - because its pervasively available.

A more relevant example: copyright violations relating to music and video - I only know a small percentage of people my age who worry weather the media is legitimate and I'd be hard pressed to find a 20-something who CARES if its legit. 

Physical objects are likely to follow the same arc as copyrighted media, and the response will be just as ineffective, a flurry of court cases, some legislative juggling - and still, things will get copied. The greatest service these "concerned parties" could perform is build a digital product specification that is universally interchangeable - with detailed materials requirements so that a conscientious maker can fabricate a part properly if they so choose. In other words: embrace the change, rather than attempt to preserve today's and yesterdays solution.

The next logical step beyond 3-d printing is small scale full fabrication (metal parts) and it will happen fairly soon.

here is a very early step in that direction: www.cubespawn.com

I agree with many of your points, and as you say, as long as you know the part you print has a limited life span, then go for it.  It's the one who don't know that will run into problems. 

Don't get me wrong.  I love this technology.  But it's been around for 25 years.  It has gone through a period of hyperbole before (back in the late 80s and early 90s), that resulted in people and companies turning away from it. Too much was promised and not delivered.

 Now, it's experiencing a resurgence.  Overhype will not serve 3D printing well.  A balanced view of its capabilities will help this technology takes its rightful place among other tools of manufacture and production.  

Prashant Chandanapurkar said:

Why and Why not?

Think about a scenario when an essential part on manufacturing line fails. The 'lead time' to procure that part is 3 days. I can't have my manufacturing line down for 3 days. The supplier ships me a CAD drawing or maintenance guy downloads it from internet. Print the part though it works for 1/10th of the time I save Mn $$$$ in production loss and after receipt of original part I just replace it with new one!

I think one should judge it based on situation. There is no 'yes' or 'no' answer! 

Though I think the 3D printing technology is yet to evolve to replace 100% characteristics of original part but I am optimist that one day it will. It cannot possibly replace the 'mass manufacturing' components due to manufacturing economics,  but yes specialty made and low volume componets have a good case.

Till that time let the situation unfold!

I agree with you. We have been hearing about hydrogen fuel cars, bio based plastics blah blah blah... lot of promises but taking time due to 'technological difficulties' (mostly economic!).

I recently met one of my friend who invested 100K $ in buying 3D printer. He said during demo they never told him about chemicals required. So when the printer arrived it required some chemical to be filled in every time. Those chemicals stink so he has to move that printer away from R&D to open air parking area! Gosh!

People get impressed with those fancy demos on web and buy such stuff and at the end of it they get nothing but disappointment!

On the other side I have met people who are honest about this technology and they tell please note that there is upfront investment and XXX running cost. So unless one get xx number of prototyping jobs, it's not even worth to invest!

This gave me a chuckle "that people under the age of 30 take a very different view" I'm 50, but I think that this is a barrier to be broken through - since it has the potential to pull manufacturing back to the US - for domestic production - and localize production everywhere.

I think Prashant's example is a good one although I disagree with the premise of "manufacturing economics" since by the time you commit the resources to be able to make 100,000 units the initial expense is so high that the fact you are reducing the unit cost is something of an illusion - your committing a huge amount of resources and assuming that your not creating oversupply and overconsumption as an un-calculated cost...

on-demand production, coupled with "designed for recycling" products may have a higher unit cost - but you have very little waste and no extra units lying around - corporate scale production masks the inherent inefficiency in the process - but I have personally seen 100's of cases of product go straight to a land fill - so I know better ;-)

Leslie Langnau said:

First, I'm reporting what your fellow engineers are discussing.  Many of them view the developments as alarming.  I can see their points.  Engineers used to be trained to examine what can go wrong--this was standard practice in the engineering curriculums of my time. I'm not sure it is still so.  

I've noticed for some time that people under the age of 30 take a very different view and seem to see boundaries and limitations as something to deliberately break through.  Maybe you're right, maybe not.  

<SNIP> redundancy removed

here is a very early step in that direction: www.cubespawn.com

Your friend's experience is unfortunate.  The media paint an unrealistic picture of this technology --it will do anything for you at practically no cost.  So untrue.  While there is a lot of potential, and we may actually achieve the Star Trek replicator we seem to long for, it will be a while before it happens. Enthusiasm is great. And use it to break through the boundaries of this technology. But buyers still need to be aware! 

Prashant Chandanapurkar said:

I agree with you. We have been hearing about hydrogen fuel cars, bio based plastics blah blah blah... lot of promises but taking time due to 'technological difficulties' (mostly economic!).

I recently met one of my friend who invested 100K $ in buying 3D printer. He said during demo they never told him about chemicals required. So when the printer arrived it required some chemical to be filled in every time. Those chemicals stink so he has to move that printer away from R&D to open air parking area! Gosh!

People get impressed with those fancy demos on web and buy such stuff and at the end of it they get nothing but disappointment!

On the other side I have met people who are honest about this technology and they tell please note that there is upfront investment and XXX running cost. So unless one get xx number of prototyping jobs, it's not even worth to invest!

I recently saw a beautiful 3D printed clock.  I so wanted to own it, but it would have cost me $400.  As a consumer, I'm not going to pay that  high a price. I understand the technology, I know the cost of materials, but custom one-offs will have to be more reasonably priced for the average person for this to take off.  Not sure we are at that point yet.  I think 3D printing/rapidprototyping/additive manufacturing (what ever) will help and aid US manufacturing, but I'm also intrigued with the idea that our concept of manufacturing will have to change.  I agree with others in that we can't go back to the days of the 1960s and the auto industry example.  Making to capacity is not a good idea.  Making to customers has potential, but cost will always be a driving or dividing force. 

James Jones said:

This gave me a chuckle "that people under the age of 30 take a very different view" I'm 50, but I think that this is a barrier to be broken through - since it has the potential to pull manufacturing back to the US - for domestic production - and localize production everywhere.

I think Prashant's example is a good one although I disagree with the premise of "manufacturing economics" since by the time you commit the resources to be able to make 100,000 units the initial expense is so high that the fact you are reducing the unit cost is something of an illusion - your committing a huge amount of resources and assuming that your not creating oversupply and overconsumption as an un-calculated cost...

on-demand production, coupled with "designed for recycling" products may have a higher unit cost - but you have very little waste and no extra units lying around - corporate scale production masks the inherent inefficiency in the process - but I have personally seen 100's of cases of product go straight to a land fill - so I know better ;-)

Leslie Langnau said:

First, I'm reporting what your fellow engineers are discussing.  Many of them view the developments as alarming.  I can see their points.  Engineers used to be trained to examine what can go wrong--this was standard practice in the engineering curriculums of my time. I'm not sure it is still so.  

I've noticed for some time that people under the age of 30 take a very different view and seem to see boundaries and limitations as something to deliberately break through.  Maybe you're right, maybe not.  

<SNIP> redundancy removed

here is a very early step in that direction: www.cubespawn.com

Random aside here - - - have all the 3D printing folks seen Boeing's Phantom Ray? http://blog.netfabb.com/?bid=38 Entirely made from 3D printing!

Not entirely made, according to the site, but a good amount is made from 3D printing.  Very cool example! 

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