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  • Sarah Goehrke

3D Printing, Social Impact, And Crisis

We all need to raise our voices right now.

Acknowledging that, please also note that I’m putting this piece out on my own blog, and this commentary is not affiliated with any of my clients or other relationships in the 3D printing industry.

It’s mid-2020, and in some ways the world is reaching new horizons and fulfilling prophecies laid out generations ago. No, we don’t have flying cars, but we do have instantaneous communication across oceans and people circling the planet -- and sometimes even operating 3D printers while in orbit.

In other ways, the world has regressed. Or perhaps stagnated, or otherwise simply not progressed.

We’re in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands across the world, with more than 100,000 deaths in the US alone.

I had to rewrite that sentence a few times: first because it’s so hard to turn people’s lives into statistics, but then again and again because I wanted to say “the US, where I live” or “my native US” or otherwise signify that I’m talking specifically about this country because it’s where I live. But that’s another crisis, because I don’t want to shout right now about being American; this isn’t the country I was raised in, this isn’t a society I’m easily recognizing right now as being “home”.

It’s all hard to talk about, and in so many ways it’s not my place to do so. But after reading Nora Toure’s piece today on Medium -- On the social impact of 3D Printing and why it matters -- I realize that she’s very right, and it’s on all of us who can do so to raise our voices in these times.

When it comes to COVID-19, I’ve been taking every opportunity to help boost messaging in the 3D printing industry through the publications for which I write regularly, from Fabbaloo to Forbes.

This technology has been literally a life-saver in many cases, helping to keep patients on working ventilators and to keep frontline workers protected with PPE as traditional manufacturing has ramped up to meet the sudden onslaught of demand for these products. 3D printed face shields, ventilator components, nasopharyngeal swabs, ear savers, and other parts have been made by the thousand -- by the million, for the test swabs.

It’s clear to see where my place as a journalist can be in this fight: sharing the message that 3D printing can help, that 3D printing is helping in this crisis. Connecting resources, highlighting efforts with easy-to-find contact information for medical personnel who need PPE, for makers who want to donate their 3D printing time and materials to help. Even analyzing how the 3D printing industry stands to benefit in the long term, as it’s proving its viability, its value in supply chain shortages and point-of-care production.

What’s not clear is how 3D printing or I can help in the eruptions of the last week in the US.

Another innocent Black man was murdered. Protests outraged at the police murder of George Floyd have rightfully sprung up throughout the country -- and we’re seeing them throughout the world, as well. There is no place in a peaceful society for the kind of treatment George Floyd and too too many others in the Black community have endured… I would say recently (Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery), but in the United States mistreatment is really the only treatment the African American community has known. The country is rooted in slavery.

As we’ve seen, the protests have turned into displays of power, of violence -- not because of the protesters. Protesters have gathered peacefully by the thousands in cities around the world, kneeling in solidarity, chanting the names of those we need to remember and to honor, asking, simply, to be heard. These protesters have been tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets, have been blamed for rioting and looting. That looting has unrightfully taken the headlines from the protesters’ messaging.

I am not the right person to ruminate on societal change at this level; please refer to the many, many Black voices raised right now for their actual perspective.

I’m a tech writer. While it’s clear where 3D printing can apply to helping in a pandemic, when it comes to systematic racism things aren’t nearly so clear. We can’t 3D print an answer.

But we can apply lessons, perhaps, to understand.

3D printing is a young technology, a young industry -- barely older than I am, born in the 1980s. So much of the messaging work I’ve been doing in my career in 3D printing has been to inform readers of the capabilities of the technology. It has grown up from only being used for prototyping to being over-hyped to being a viable industrial manufacturing technology.

I spend my time writing about the slow path to adoption the technology is facing. How even when faced with samples and statistics, certain risk-averse sectors of the manufacturing economy still balk at adopting additive manufacturing into their operations.

If 3D printing could take its place in the global supply chain, so many things could change: decentralized manufacturing, lower carbon emissions due to less need for shipping, on-demand production, more environmentally-friendly materials and means of production, optimized designs to lower and lightweight parts.

The benefits to true global adoption are many, and those in this still-pretty-niche industry know them well. I’ve heard these battle cries at many an industry presentation, in meeting rooms from Barcelona to Tel Aviv to Taipei to Frankfurt to Silicon Valley to Youngstown.

It’s becoming clear that within the 3D printing industry, we know the messaging, we know the benefits. Great.

But beyond 3D printing, beyond those who work every day with these technologies, the messaging is still garbled. Some people have heard of it, but stopped listening when desktop 3D printing was declared “dead” circa 2015, and perhaps lend half an ear when it comes up in discussion now. Others point to the bottom line of the expense of investing in new seven-figure industrial equipment, nevermind the fact that return on investment might be only a few short years before that bottom line begins to look very different: it’s scary now because it’s expensive and still new.

The Black community knows its messaging. It’s had plenty of practice. George Floyd’s murder was by no means the first to hit that community so hard -- nor by now, just a week later, is it the most recent.

For those outside the community, it can again be easy to turn a blind eye to these rallying cries; it’s comfortable to stay within comfort zones. If it doesn’t affect you, why go out on a limb?

It’s a weak, weak comparison, but just as 3D printing might be the ticket to revolutionizing manufacturing -- as so many companies’ taglines like to declare -- so too would listening to minority communities’ plights to revolutionize society itself.

The return on investment is unthinkably massive: imagine the world we were promised as kids, where every voice matters, where everyone has a chance to be heard, to contribute.

That’s the world I was promised, anyway, the world I thought I would grow up into; and yes, that’s very easy for the middle class white girl from the suburbs to think. Now that I’m grown, I’m still a middle class white girl in the ‘burbs, but there’s something to that: it means I have a voice.

We should all be raising our voices, but it's not what I have to say that matters right now. So I would like to use whatever white privilege, whatever leadership platform, I may have to signal boost those we need to be listening to.

To attain sea change, we need, as always, to listen to the experts.

When it comes to 3D printing, my advice is always to read everything you can, to educate yourself. It’s the same today: to effect social change, read all you can (especially written by Black authors), educate yourself. And, of course, vote. Vote, vote, vote.

So here are some resources (there are so many more out there):

For more thoughts on actionable diversity within the 3D printing community itself, I refer you as well again to Nora’s excellent piece.

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