The Business/Ethical Quandary Of 3D Printing Weapons

By on August 13th, 2019 in community, Ideas

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 A (fired) 3D printed gun as seen at London Science Museum [Image: Fabbaloo]
A (fired) 3D printed gun as seen at London Science Museum [Image: Fabbaloo]

Should 3D printing companies be taking a stance regarding the production of weapons?

We live in a volatile world. No decision happens in a vacuum, and few can ever be said to be incontestably, uncontroversially “right”. This is all the more so when we take into account acts of violence.

As a US citizen, 2019 has been tough. Things are charged in this country — and of course around the world as so many countries find themselves in tricky political situations. One especially difficult situation not fully unique to, but uniquely amplified in, the US is regarding mass shootings. We’re not here to discuss those; there are plenty of non-tech news sites out there for that.

But there is one aspect that is relevant: the manufacture of weapons.

3D Printed Guns and Weapons

Should 3D printing be a consideration when it comes to gun manufacture?

There have been well-publicized incidents with 3D printed guns and gun components over the last several years. Most are one-off incidents, or a single entity seeking to legalize and distribute digital files to make parts for guns so anyone can 3D print their own untraceable ‘ghost gun’.

Questions of legality aside — and there are plenty, and plenty under legislative consideration — there’s a moral question here: are 3D printer manufacturers responsible for what comes off their 3D printers?

That can extend outward, too, as publicly available 3D printers open the same door. The American Library Association addressed a policy question last summer as a library patron wanted to 3D print parts for a gun and was refused, per a no-weapons policy (as well as one limiting 3D printer use to three hours per print, which would have been exceeded).

Some companies do feel strongly about the use of their technology in weapons manufacture. This can encompass anything from individuals 3D printing components to government defense agencies 3D printing larger-grade weapons components. Many see contracts with defense agencies as a major business win; others see them as crossing a line from the founders’ original mission.

Official Statements

Two companies are top of mind when it comes to no-weapons policies: Materialise and Carbon.

Materialise has long held this stance. I reached out to the company for comment and their statement is:

“Since the start of the company in 1990 our mission is to use 3D printing and its applications to create a better and healthier world. To act upon this mission statement we have a strict no weapons policy. In the event that our software technology is used in a way that is not in line with our mission, we will donate the proceeds of this transaction to charity.”

This is echoed in the terms and conditions for the company’s i.materialise 3D printing platform, which states:

“i.materialise acts according to its mission, which is to make the world a better and healthier place to live. Therefore, i.materialise reserves the right to refuse at its own discretion and at all times an order that is in conflict with its mission and value statement. Creating firearms, their components, or any other prototype or model intended for the weapon industry, or models for which i.materialise has ethical concerns in general, are rejected to be quoted or produced. i.materialise reserves the right to discontinue the execution process of those orders.”

The company has stood behind this, refusing orders for obviously illegal parts.

Following the most recent terrible acts in the US, Carbon issued a statement to reassert its stance:

More Stances

As it turns out, weapons manufacture is a touchy subject.

I didn’t go full “investigative reporter” here, but in a few days of searching and asking, I found only a few other instances of publicly available/quotable/on-the-record company policies touching on gun production.

A report from The Oregonian early this year indicates that HP echoes the stance of Carbon in not allowing use of its 3D printers for the production of unregistered guns:

“HP is against ‘ghost guns’ being produced on our 3D printers,” [HP Inc. CEO Dion] Weisler wrote in the November letter, obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Manufacturing service provider Fast Radius is among the service companies with an internal policy, as Director of Marketing Lindsay Baish shares:

“We haven’t issued an official statement to the public, but @FastRadius has a company policy that we do not make parts for unregulated weapons.”

Another service provider I heard from shared a brief story of a client they turned down following an inquiry for a federally regulated component for a gun. This instance highlighted another important aspect of this question, as 3D printing the part may have opened the company up to a lawsuit due to the regulated nature of that particular part.

Mission Statements

The commonality among companies willing to take a public stance lies mainly in their founding mission statements.

Looking again to Materialise and Carbon, this is laid out as creating technology to better the world. If we look to some of their headliner applications, we can see where this comes into play: Materialise’s work with and investment into medical technologies only continues to increase, while one of Carbon’s major partnerships is introducing more safety to athletes.

When a founding principle for a company is to make the world a better place for people, it’s easy to see how statements regarding technology for the better fit in, and where a hard line can be drawn forbidding applications that don’t adhere to those uses.

Our Stance

At Fabbaloo, we remain dedicated to impartial, fair reporting on this industry. As an independent news source, we also enjoy the ability to inject some of our own personalities and opinions.

When I joined the team last summer, we sat down together and talked through our stances on some of these topics. Kerry and I largely agreed on the editorial front: we’re not here to stoke fires or report on controversial matters for the sake of being controversial (see ‘ghost gun’ articles that get plenty of views but don’t add much more than pot stirring).

We’re still not going to stir the pot, and we’re still not going to report on homemade 3D printed guns. But we do feel it is our responsibility to speak up in solidarity with company stances like those from Materialise and Carbon that, frankly, make sense to us.

The Hippocratic Oath may seem to be fully doctors’ territory, but one spot of it remains fairly universal: “First, do no harm.” In many ways, that makes sense to extend to our industry as well.

Given how difficult it was to find public stances from 3D printing companies, we’re very curious: do more companies have such policies? If there has ever been a time to speak up, it’s now.

By Sarah Goehrke

Sarah Goehrke is a Special Correspondent for Fabbaloo, via a partnership with Additive Integrity LLC. Focused on the 3D printing industry since 2014, she strives to bring grounded and on-the-ground insights to the 3D printing industry. Sarah served as Fabbaloo's Managing Editor from 2018-2021 and remains active in the industry through Women in 3D Printing and other work.