3D Printing To Spark Major Debate On Ethics

by CXOtoday News Desk    Jan 31, 2014

3d printing

At the rate in which 3D printing is advancing, it may spark a major ethical debate on its use by 2016, says research firm Gartner. The effects may be particularly disruptive in the healthcare and biomedical industry where the growth is taking place even faster owing to an increased demand of 3D bioprinting.

Impact on healthcare

“3D bioprinting facilities with the ability to print human organs and tissue will advance far faster than general understanding and acceptance of the ramifications of this technology,” said Pete Basiliere, Research Director at Gartner.

Already in August 2013, the Hangzhou Dianzi University in China announced it had invented the biomaterial 3D printer ‘Regenovo’, which printed a small working kidney that lasted four months. Earlier in 2013, a two-year-old child in the US received a windpipe built with her own stem cells.

Basiliere adds that these initiatives are well-intentioned, but raise a number of questions that remain unanswered. What happens when complex ‘enhanced’ organs involving nonhuman cells are made? Who will control the ability to produce them? Who will ensure the quality of the resulting organs?”

 Nevertheless, the day when 3D-bioprinted human organs are readily available is drawing closer, and will result in a complex debate involving a great many political, moral and financial interests. As 3D printing technology continues to mature, its ability to build customized human anatomical parts has pervasive appeal in medical device markets — especially in economically weak and war-torn regions — where it addresses high demand for prosthetic and other medical devices. In addition, increasing familiarity within the material sciences and computer-augmented design services sectors, and integration with healthcare and hospitals, will further lead to complications.

“The overall success rates of 3D printing use cases in emerging regions will escalate for three main reasons: the increasing ease of access and commoditization of the technology; ROI; and because it simplifies supply chain issues with getting medical devices to these regions,” said Basiliere.

IP Theft possibilities

Outside the medical market, 3D printing will also bring about major challenges, as Gartner predicts that by 2018, at least seven of the world’s top 10 multichannel retailers will be using 3D printing technology to generate custom stock orders, at the same time as entirely new business models are built on the technology. With 3D printers being sold to consumers in the market, and become more readily available, consumers could use them to ‘manufacture’ their own custom-designed products, says Gartner.

The rapid emergence of this technology will also create major challenges in relation to intellectual property (IP) theft.

In an earlier report however Gartner was quite upbeat about the 3D printing revolution, and Basiliere stated that “We see 3D printing as a tool for empowerment, already enabling life-changing parts and products to be built in struggling countries, helping rebuild crisis-hit areas and leading to the democratization of manufacturing.” 

In the new report however, he predicts that in the next 3-4 years, 3D printing will result in the loss of at least USD 100 billion per year in IP globally.

“The very factors that foster innovation — crowdsourcing, R&D pooling and funding of start-ups —provide a fertile ground for intellectual property theft using 3D printers,” said Basiliere. “Already, it’s possible to 3D print many items, including toys, machine and automotive parts, and even weapons.”

In this environment, businesses will find it increasingly difficult to fully monetize their inventions, and licensees of related IP will be less able to achieve the maximum benefit of their licenses. IP thieves will have reduced product development and supply chain costs, enabling them to sell counterfeit goods at a discount, while unsuspecting customers are at risk of poorly performing and possibly even dangerous products.