print something just because

Just because we can print it, does that mean we should?

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“Just because you can print something, doesn’t mean you should,” says our new columnist, SJ. As many look to 3D printing to ease supply chain issues and add the wow factor, they also need to consider engineering ethics


My boss’ irritation slowly sinks in as he firmly puts his foot down. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this,” he says, “but it’s just not an additive part.”

There’s a moment of hesitation from the design team lead. I can tell this isn’t the ugly truth he came to hear. He responds, even more firmly: “But can you print it?

That’s what we’re asking you.” My boss hesitates, work politics clearly on his mind. “It is printable, technically speaking, but it’s a much better candidate for a traditional process like casting or forging. From a cost perspective –”

The other shoe drops and my boss is cut off by Mr Fancy Title Engineer. “Additive brings the manufacturing of the part in-house and at an advantageous schedule,” he insists. “Cost isn’t an issue here. We’ll proceed forward with the design and take it to production.”

I feel like I have this conversation more and more as the pandemic progresses. Companies looking to hedge the risk in their supply chains exacerbated by Covid want to bring manufacturing in-house or to a 3D printing bureau closer to their home operations.

As an engineer, I am constantly reminded to “stay in my lane”. My job is to take CAD data, format it for printing, and then make the parts to customer requirements. Fortunately for me, my job is the thing I’m most passionate about: 3D printing.

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I jump out of bed in the morning with dreams of new geometries that have never been made before. My goal is to give life to parts that are not only aesthetically beautiful, but can also match or out perform traditional parts in almost every category. 3D printing is the edge of an engineering design frontier and as we approach our ‘manifest destiny’, I have to stop and ask: “Just because we can print it, does that mean we should?”

3D printing – who decides?

For all of the performance enhancements that 3D printing can provide, in the form of light weighting, topology optimisation, low blade angles and crazy, curvy heat exchangers, this technology seems incredibly underutilised. But who decides what we print?

Is it the additive manufacturing engineer or Mr Fancy Pants, who’s in charge of the cheque book? And why does it matter, anyway?

In my past, I was asked to work on a highly classified defence project, where I didn’t exactly know how the part would be used. I just knew its key characteristics: material, shape, size and budget.

When I asked my engineering colleagues how they felt about not getting more information, I was told: “Your job is simply to make the thing. There’s nothing unethical about making the object. What the user does with it after that is none of our concern. The only ethical obligation you have is to make sure that it is of the highest quality, meets all requirements and is delivered on time.”

I feel like we’ve all been there at least once. Questioning authority isn’t easy and, looking back on this conversation, I remember nodding and not pushing the issue any further.

The time will come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy

But in the present, as someone deeply passionate about this technology, I can’t help but feel some sort of contrition. Did I do the right thing by staying in my lane? It’s just a (.eos) job… right?

Which then makes me wonder if we, as an additive manufacturing industry, are taking ethics into account? Are we making parts that put public welfare first? Who is going to feel the effects – both positive and negative – of this technology that we’re introducing? Has anyone mapped out the short-term and long-term consequences?

It is 2021. We are living in a pandemic. People are dying in greater numbers than ever before. So, when asked whether or not you should print something just because you can, I ask that you take a moment to reflect. To give it some thought every now and again.

The time will come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy. Even if it hurts in the moment, at the end of the day, making a choice that aligns with your core values is what helps you sleep at night. In twenty years, you don’t want to still be asking, “It was just a job…right?”


Get in touch:SJ @inconelle

SJ is a Metal Additive Engineer aka THEE Hot Girl of Metal Printing.

She currently works as a metal additive applications engineer providing AM solutions and #3dprinting of metal parts to help create a decarbonised world.

Get in touch at @inconelle on twitter


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