The ethical issues of additive manufacturing




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De Montfort University


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Peer reviewed


Additive manufacturing (3D printing) has brought industrial manufacturing capabilities to the desktop, allowing the seamless transition from consumer-to-manufacturer-to-retailer and enabling anyone to use the technology outside of traditionally regulated spaces. This creates new challenges for information technology governance. The potential societal risks of additive manufacturing (AM) are not well known and there is a policy vacuum on how the technology should be used responsibly. As 3D printers become mainstream and are increasingly being used in homes, garages, SME’s, educational institutions, large enterprises etc, this study explores the ethical issues promoted by the technology. Considering that 3D printing has mainly been advanced by activities of DIY hacker groups and the sharing economy, this thesis is framed in the context of users from DIY hacker collectives like hackspaces, makerspaces, and FabLabs. The research investigates the ethical concerns of experts who are closely associated with such collectives to understand the types of issues they are concerned about. The study was also an attempt to understand the implications of expert participation in knowledge-making in terms of ethics. An interpretive hermeneutic approach was followed in the collection and analysis of data from the experts that participated in this research. This approach helped the researcher to recognise how personal prejudices can be the basis of developing an understanding and to reflect critically on the cultural and historical background of 3D printing, the participants, and the researchers own historicity in a bid to derive meaning from the study. The study has found that participants were able to identify several ethical issues which have been broken down into 26 subthemes. The main themes, however, are environment, health and safety, intellectual property rights, jobs, 3D printed guns, business ethics, offensive items, data security, and liability. Nevertheless, a closer inspection of these findings also indicates that individually, the participants have limited knowledge of the societal concerns of 3D printing. For example, when participants are split into academics and SME’s to reflect their professional background, academics identified an average of 1.7 of the 26 subthemes, as opposed to an average of 3.7 issues by those from SMEs. This raises important questions about the reliability and validity of expert participation in knowledge-making for ethics-related studies. The findings also show that the hacking culture has had a double-edged effect on 3D printing. It has actively promoted the democratisation of the 3D printing by enabling anyone and everyone to participate and benefit equally. However, it has also passively promoted societal concerns by enabling the use of 3D printers in spaces outside of institutional control where ethical approval isn’t required.





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