Imagine printing whatever you want--food, cosmetics, clothes, electronics-- and seeing them appear right in front of you with a press of a button. As recently as 5 years ago, most people would have believed 3D printing to be an absurd dream. But today, 3D printing technology has advanced and has become more commonly used. It is just a matter of time before it becomes widely available for consumers to be used daily. When this occurs, 3D printing will enable consumers to buy and customize products more easily than ever. However, current lack of governmental regulations on both commercial and medical 3D printing may give rise to acute legal and ethical concerns.
As 3D printing becomes increasingly accessible to the public, consumers will experience a new level of shopping convenience. Anything from food products to electronic devices can all be printed from the comfort of their homes. Furthermore, 3D printing will decrease needs for physical transportation of goods, and increase customization.This will result in faster and cheaper products for consumers, and reduce environmental stress caused by transportation.
As with anything, however, the numerous benefits of 3D printing also come with problems. Currently, the FDA regulates 3D printed devices manufactured by companies the same way it does non-3D printed devices. The lack of additional regulations limiting both consumer and producer freedom allows for the possibility of questionable items being printed. Because 3D printing can be calibrated with pictures taken with specialized software, anybody, for instance, could easily rob a house or steal a car-- with just a picture of the keys and a 3D printer.
3D printing can also be done with graphic files. Although these files would typically need to be purchased in order to print an item from a store, the potential for copyright abuse through illegal downloading and sharing, especially with the commercial value 3D printing provides, is vast. This kind of misdemeanor isn’t unprecedented, either. Piracy in the music industry alone causes the U.S. government losses of $12.5 billion and 71,060 jobs annually. Illegally downloading files to print means that manufacturers don’t get paid, and often also means that workers get laid off. Lack of specific and effective regulations for 3D printing is projected to bring similar economical losses.
Although 3D printing has yet to become a common household appliance, it is already making significant headway in the medical field. Instead of waiting months for a potentially unsuccessful organ donation, doctors can simply print an organ that is guaranteed to be the patient’s match. Printing custom organs for patients would significantly reduce the chances of complications. Additionally, 3D printers with built-in lasers have the ability to create 3D holograms of any particular organ, which would allow doctors to review 360-degree views of the organ to locate tumors or to spot any other symptoms in the patient.
Despite the vast benefits 3D printing offers in the medical field, it also highlights important new ethical and legal issues. As of February, 2015, the FDA has approved 85 medical devices for production-- with no set regulations on their usages. Once doctors print out an organ for a specific patient, they still own the blueprint for it. Since there are no regulations for what should happen to the blueprints of the patients’ organs, doctors could easily continue to use them in their personal studies without the patient’s knowledge or consent. Similar cases like this have already happened even without technological advancements like 3D printing. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital for bleeding profusely following the birth of her fifth child. Her cells were given to George Otto Gey, a researcher at the hospital, who continued to use her cells after her death for medical research. Her cells, later named HeLa cells, proceeded to yield millions of dollars in revenue for medical researchers who went on to use them to develop polio vaccines and gene mapping techniques. To this day, her cells are being used to develop cures for cancer and other diseases. However, Gey failed to inform her family of the fact that he was experimenting on Henrietta’s cells, and the family did not get any of the profit that was made off of HeLa cells. Most importantly, Henrietta Lacks did not get proper recognition for the part her cells played in medical advancements. Problems like this are common even without 3D printing, and when 3D printing does become more common, even more complicated problems are sure to arise.
3D printing is an innovation that can benefit consumers and professionals alike. It is set to play a big role in the future of creativity and efficiency among consumers as well as the reduction of risk in many previously dangerous medical procedures. However, the lack of regulations poses a lot of questions for the problems that 3D printing will bring into society. Setting up proper rules and regulations will decrease the likeliness for unexpected problems to arise and create a smooth transition into a future world where 3D printing is widely and safely available.