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?