what future are we printing?

Thirty years later in 3D printing and significant developments in efficiency, reliability and affordability have been accomplished. Subsequently, 3D printing has already achieved broad diffusion throughout industries, from pharmaceuticals to architecture, and can now bypass retailers altogether through desktop printers. As this technology matures it has the potential to be a disruptive innovation. Could it then be too late to govern this technology, as described in Collingridge’s “dilemma of control”?


The KamerMaker is a 6 meter tall printer that is already printing components to build a house – not quite like this

In Kelly’s “What Technology wants”, an emerging technology is said to go through a process of career discovery and development. 3D printing has advanced from prototypes to production and has graduated from resin to printing in chemical, biological and edible inks. For instance, in “A 3D printed future: 10 surprising things we could see printed soon”, printing meat and leather makes the cut. To direct the progress of this technology, PETA has offered $1 million to the producer of “commercially viable in vitro chicken meat by March 1, 2014”.  The diffusion, popularity and success of 3D printing, has created a potent hype and inspired organisations such as Statasys, who describe themselves as “3D printings biggest fans”. They demonstrate how the luxury of personalisation becomes more economical through 3D printing, such as running shoes customised to each athlete’s own 3D foot scan, significantly increasing efficiency. They also propagate narratives of life-changing innovations, such as customised light-weight prosthetics for children in “Emma’s Magic Arms”David Flanders, a “3D printing evangelist” and his company PIF3D, also celebrates 3D printing, hosting parties for building 3D printers that can even print themselves.


3D Printing The Future, is an overview of this technology, commissioned by the Wellcome Collection in the science museum. Their offering is a stylish summary of 3D printing activity and the ambitions of those steering it. The exhibit is optimistic, colourful and captures the imagination, from custom made pieces of art to high speed lightweight planes. Pippa Hough hopes “to create a deeper engagement” in a video of visitors being scanned and printed as figurines. More controversially, is the display of a 3D printed gun, provided by Ville Vaarnes, a journalist in Finland. The digital design was downloaded free of charge and easily accessible from Defence Distributed. This leads onto the dangers and disasters forecasted for 3D printing which are scarier than these 3D printed dolls.

Offering a law enforcement perspective, in “A vision of crimes of the future”Marc Goodman spoke in TEDGlobal 2012 of his education from criminals and terrorists. He speaks on the use of technology in crime through the availability of new tools and the exploitation of the openness of our virtual world. This point was made just last year, when a German hacker printed universal keys, for handcuffs used in both England and Germany. Furthermore, the accessibility of making a printer was proven when Afate Gnikou built a printer out of scrap from a landfill in Africa. This was for a competition set by NASA in a design challenge to colonise Mars. The technologies we develop for our aspirations towards a “techno-utopia” are ultimately not exclusively useful for our intended agenda. The case for instrumentalism is plain to see, technologies can be as destructive as they may be constructive, depending on the user. This point is made in the printed gun. What impact could this have on the regulations of arms, especially in the UK?


Marc Goodman concludes that the crime of the future makes our traditional law enforcement redundant and outdated, as they are merely national and physical barriers. He promotes a security system that involves public engagement and utilises the strengths of our openness and connectedness. He articulated a social problem, well illustrated with examples across technology, however his solution seems to lack substance despite some direction.

Furthermore, there are surely industrial implications here. The Ecololyst “Of Labour, Unions and Printing” describes how the process of 3D printing is efficient in its waste-eliminating precision, achieving intricate results without costly manual labour. This article also describes the failures of globalisation and how 3D printing could facilitate localisation of the manufacturing industry. 3D printing would eliminate the increasing costs of production in developing countries such as increases in minimum wage and shipping. In this way, manufacturing jobs would be repatriated but surely in a diminished capacity. Lisa Harouni describes this reality, of reduced labour as simply “great”, but surely this would be hugely impacting on international employment. There are other sectors that would become disrupted in this new supply chain such as transport, storage and retail. Future employment prospects for those earning “middle-class wages” seem unclear as products could transfer from design to in-house printing.


Mr Bucket checking toothpaste caps in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory before he loses his job to a machine

Therefore, the potential for 3D printing to affect the jobs market and challenge law enforcement creates issues in governing this technology. We seem to be within the realms of the “dilemma of control”, described by Collingridge. This theory states that the more established a technology becomes, the more it becomes “locked-in” to society through institutions and path dependency. This makes retrospective governance expensive and difficult. However, the dilemma lies in the fact that before a technology becomes established, it is difficult to justify such governance and interference. Surely, if nothing else, current legislation would need adapted. For instance, the UK has established policies on arms control and intellectual property. Therefore, the weakness lies in the ability to police these laws, virtually on the internet and physically in regulating what is printed.

In conclusion, it seems 3D printing has arrived and could accomplish dominance in manufacturing. If so, governance seems already left behind in the policing of online activity. This would only be exasperated by supplementing virtual exchange with physical objects. However, like many hyped up technologies, the place for these printers in the future is not yet know and a governmental response would be difficult to justify indeed.


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