3-D printing has been touted as a win-win technology that could save U.S. manufacturing, send medical equipment to the developing world, and give us fresh organs and tissue when we need them. It’s also seen as an economic driver. McKinsey Global Institute says additive manufacturing could boost GDP by $550 billion a year by the middle of the next decade.
But 3-D printing–the general term for automated technologies that layer materials to form physical objects–may not be all good. A new report from the market research firm Gartner shows that it may present several icky issues and questions, including whether it’s ethical to print human parts and whether 3-D printing might lead to a motherlode of intellectual property abuse. Gartner forecasts IP losses of at least $100 billion a year by 2018.
Companies like Organovo, in San Diego, are already printing human tissue. Regenovo, from China, last year printed a working kidney (it survived four months). And that’s just the start. Scientists have proposed “enhanced” organs, where human stem cells are mixed with canine muscle cells. All of this, especially as the technologies advance and hit the market, could begin to raise moral and religious objections, Gartner says.
From the report:
The emergence of 3D bioprinting facilities with the ability to print human organs can leave people wondering what will be the effect on society. Many questions will be raised, such as “Who will control the ability to receive bioprints?” “Who will ensure the quality of the organs?” and “Will there be regulation of this emerging industry?”
“By printing tissues and organs, it’s going to result in a debate about whether we should ban or regulate,” says Gartner research director Pete Basiliere, in an interview. “When you start looking at those constructs, there will be people who will have moral, ethical and religious concerns.” Gartner expects to see that discussion start by 2016.
If you think there’s a lot of theft of intellectual property today, it’s likely to be nothing compared to what 3-D printing will allow. Think about it. When everyone has a 3-D scanner, multiple materials are available, and printers are plentiful, it’s going to be easy to rip off physical goods.
The plummeting costs of 3D printers, scanners and modeling technology, combined with improving capabilities, makes the technology for intellectual property theft more accessible to would-be criminals.
Basiliere says widespread counterfeiting is likely to be dangerous, particularly if it involves complex products. “People who make these copies may not make them well. The counterfeit could be extremely hazardous to the person who uses it,” he says.
Which isn’t to say that 3-D printing isn’t going to be exciting and transformative. Basiliere thinks it will benefit mankind. It’s just that maybe not everything about 3-D printing will be to our liking.