3D printing: a technological utopia?

By Isabella Royce | 30 Mar 14

This article is part of Right Now’s February issue, focusing on Technology and Human Rights

By Isabella Royce

The demand for ‘3D experiences’ has escalated in recent years, progressing from 3D blockbuster films to home entertainment systems. Yet the desire for making the intangible tangible continues to grow. We want to feel as if we can touch that movie star in front of us, like our football heroes are taking a mark in our living room and, apparently, we want to produce our body transplant parts from the comfort of our bedroom.

This may be a slight exaggeration, but the potential for instant gratification has reached new heights with the development of 3D printing technology.

‘Stratasys’, one of the two leading manufacturers of 3D printers was at the time of writing operating on an estimated price to earnings ratio of 66, more than that of Facebook.  The hype around this technology was even featured in President Obama’s State of the Union address, and has led many to foreshadow the “third industrial revolution,”. It’s  clear that 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is rapidly becoming integrated with mainstream manufacturing and lifestyle – but what is it, exactly?

The machines work by printing thousands of successive layers from a particular material (or ‘ink’) one at a time and stacking them on each other to build a finished solid object. The layers can form complex, moving parts without the need for specialised tools. This differs from traditional machining techniques that rely on the assembling of individual parts or the subtractive process of removing or drilling .

The printer works from a computer-based design pattern or ‘digital blueprint’ that can be custom-designed with the appropriate software or downloaded from a pattern-sharing website. The object materialises from computer screen to table in mere hours.

For the moment this technology serves mainly industrial, engineering, medical and research purposes. The leap from the margins to the mainstream will depend on its accessibility and perceived use. The printers undoubtedly serve a purpose to the average individual as they offer the ability to make almost anything at home, from replacing a broken handle on a mug to printing a whole bike, part-by-part. But it will probably be some years until prices decrease and they are ‘broken in’ as a domestic necessity.

But what of the impact of 3D printing technology on Human Rights?

The positive impacts of 3D printing

 Right to water

 There are proposals for employing the 3D printing technology to improve the everyday lives of those living in developing countries. One charity partnership has proposed printing custom-built composting toilets and rainwater collectors to improve basic access to water and sanitation. This aspiration is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living found in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The project aims to train local entrepreneurs how to build, use and maintain printers and to eventually develop additional products based on community demand. Retailers will be able to manufacture products at an affordable price for locals based on open-source designs available to all.

The affordability of materials makes the project even more sustainable. Flakes of recycled plastic waste known as high-density polyethylene are melted into a liquid and moulded as required.  The use of recycled plastic will also reduce reliance on rare or endangered resources, such as teak.

What’s more, the printers are able to print many of their own parts themselves, creating a perpetual cycle of sustainability for remote communities.

Right to food and environmental protection

 The United Nations projects that by 2050 the global population will grow from 7.2 to 9.6 billion. The increased adoption of Western diets in countries such as China and India also means that the worldwide consumption of meat per person will double by 2050. This presents not only catastrophic forecasts for the sustainability of meat production and protein supplies, but also for climate change.

According to an article published by Popular Science, 500 grams of cooked beef, equivalent to a family meal’s worth of hamburgers, requires 28 square meters of land, 12 kilograms of feed and almost 800 liters of water to produce.  In order to process the meat from the field to the table, it takes an additional 4,000 Btus of fossil-fuel energy, on top of the huge quantities of methane that cows produce, responsible for as much as 51 percent of all greenhouse gas..

Two US-based companies, ‘Beyond Meat’ and ‘Modern Meadow’ have developed the capability to ‘create’ meat using 3D printing technology. The process involves around 700 million beef cells (or chicken or pork) spending two weeks growing in a cell-growth incubator. These are then spun in a centrifuge, creating the cell ‘ink’ that is used in the printer. The printed cells are returned to the incubator for a few more days to develop the naturally occurring matrix of muscle tissue, resulting in an extremely close replica to the taste and consistency of meat.  What’s more, the companies promote the complete transparency and absence of animal cruelty in their laboratories, and assert that cells are replaced periodically with only occasional biopsies taken from a few animals.

The reduced environmental footprint of the process is compelling. Where 500 grams of cooked boneless chicken requires 3.4 kilograms of dry feed and 30 liters of water, the same amount of ‘Beyond Meat’ requires less than half a kilo of ingredients and two liters of water. These developments are supported by the EU, which predicts that lab-grown meat produced on a large scale would use 99.7 percent less land and 94 percent less water than factory farming, contributing a total of 98.8 percent less greenhouse gas.

Despite any reservations as to the ‘eerie concept’ of growing meat in a lab, the technology will address problems of food distribution and access to meat by supplementing diets with equally protein-rich nourishment. Article 11(2)(a) of the ICESCR obliges states to improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making use of technical and scientific knowledge and by developing or reforming agrarian systems. Printing meat is a step in this direction.

The positive environmental impacts made by reducing animal grazing add to the protection of environmental rights, which in turn have long been recognised as essential to the well being and enjoyment of basic human rights.

Right to highest attainable standard of health

Closer to home, the University of Wollongong’s Centre for Electromaterials Science has opened a research unit at Melbourne’s St Vincent Hospital in the hope that scientists will be able to manufacture skin, arteries and organs from a patient’s own cells, all with a 3D printer, and all within a matter of hours.

Currently, the unit has printed structural components to facilitate tissue repair and regeneration with a 95 percent survival rate for the cells, and is aspiring to print functional components with living cells and biological molecules that are able to produce more complex functions. Researchers anticipate that these new tissues will be cleared for human use within three to five years, and complete organs within a decade. This groundbreaking technology will undoubtedly help promote Article 12(1) of the ICESCR, which provides for the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

 The negative impacts of 3D printing

 Gun control

 There is however, a dark side to this technology. The liberalisation of object designs offers both a gateway to and demise of this technological utopia. Peer-to-peer file sharing through sources has seen the increased (and illegal) ‘democratisation’ of music, books, films and now, design blueprints. The ability to print almost anything has opened the floodgates to downloading contraband design files, most notably, guns.

The homemade gun became a reality in 2012 when 3D print firm ‘Defense Distributed’ designed a 3D printable AR-15 rifle and a 30 round M16 magazine. These blueprints were uploaded for anyone in the world to download. The schematics for the M16 were downloaded over 200,000 times globally after the company’s founder, 26-year-old Cody Wilson, shared a YouTube video demonstrating the gun’s capabilities. The US Directorate of Defense Trade Control then ordered Wilson to remove the design from the company website. It remains only a click away on several torrent sites.

The accessibility of 3D printing to users opens up a whole can of legal worms, with the US Congress citing violation of the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act, which prohibits the manufacturing or transport of weapons that cannot be picked up by metal detectors.

3D printer companies do not endorse these types of uses for their products, with ‘Stratasys’ actually seizing a printer that Wilson had rented. But the sheer capability of these machines means the possibilities for producing threatening objects are almost limitless. As The New Yorker’s Jacob Silverman sums up, Wilson and his ‘Defense Distributed’ “epitomise a dark side that the industry would rather ignore.”

While this has opened a great debate in the US, what are the implications on our domestic human rights? The global free flow of information on sharing websites such as The Pirate Bay means that Australia will not be insulated from 3D printing technology. The impact is likely to be strongly felt in countries like Australia with tight gun control laws, as alternative firearms are not as easily obtainable. While it is likely the 3D prints would still be illegal under Australian gun control laws (our legal system is still playing ‘catch up’ to technology), 3D printing has undoubtedly increased the likelihood of people obtaining illegal weapons. This presents serious ramifications for rights to life and security of persons, as enshrined in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While the concept may seem so absurd and far-reaching, the reality is that 3D printers continue to become more accessible to the average individual and are predicted to become as common a household fixture as the computer.

As Nick Bilton from the New York Times ‘Bits’ blog describes, the actions of Wilson and his 3D gun may merely be the “canary in the coalmine,” showing us what the future may be if 3D printing becomes a mainstream reality. Whether the pros of this particular technology on human rights outweigh the cons remains to be seen; for now we can only watch the clock to see how these impacts develop. If the clock breaks, we can always print a new one.