Digital Fabrication’s Promise And Potential Pitfalls

Consumer 3D printing raises freedom of information issues.


Semiconductor functionality continues to expand, enabling robotic machines to analyze problems, make decisions and communicate information better than ever. These capabilities open the door for new applications such as Industry 4.0, a term now commonly used throughout Europe and the U.S. (more on Japan’s interpretation to follow). By integrating the performance capabilities of the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, artificial intelligence and robotics, innovative thinkers are bringing about the fourth industrial revolution. Smart manufacturing in highly automated factories offers many benefits including more reliable, repeatable processing and streamlining the transition from product development to production.

One way to make the direct connection between design and manufacturing is digital fabrication, sometimes called 3D printing. Essentially, this technology allows the production of virtually any shaped three-dimensional object from a CAD model or schematic diagram. This additive manufacturing process has been used to create everything from custom electric guitars to complex biological structures such as human ears.

As reported in the news recently, a Texas man has posted online the blueprints for digitally fabricating guns. So-called “ghost guns” basically would be non-metallic weapons, making them easier to smuggle through metal detectors installed in high-traffic places such as airports and schools. These weapons also would not have registered serial numbers and could be obtained without background checks on an owner’s criminal history or mental health. But before you panic, understand that the printing of ghost guns isn’t all that easy a do-it-yourself project. It is asserted that the guns printed from the man’s online blueprints have a high propensity for misfiring, that the posted plans would require extensive effort to convert them into manufacturing code before any weapons could be printed, and that 3D printing systems are expensive propositions to own and operate. Still, the emerging prospect of homemade guns is raising questions about the potential downside of Industry 4.0’s promise.

Thanks to internet search engines, how-to instructions for concocting a poison at your kitchen sink and even the process of building an atomic weapon are accessible with just a few keystrokes. So where does the right to free speech end and laws protecting public safety begin? How would a crime committed with a 3D printed gun be prosecuted, since most models are single-shot, use-once pistols that don’t have a traditional ballistic fingerprint?

It’s interesting to consider the potential stumbling blocks along the way to implementing smart manufacturing. The prospects are not entirely as idyllic as we imagined as kids, when cartoons depicted conveyor belts bringing raw materials into one end of an automated factory and finished products rolling out the other end of the building. So how will Industry 4.0 play out over the next few years? Will it become known as a means of accomplishing great things, as in fabricating human tissue to use in surgical healing, or for producing hard-to-trace ghost guns for nefarious purposes? In many ways, it’s up to our society to decide.

In my next blog, I’ll look a bit beyond Industry 4.0 to explore another perspective: Japan’s take on Society 5.0.

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