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3D Printing Artificial Limbs (Wicked Question)


3D printers are definitely gaining popularity and they may soon become as popular as your everyday household 2D printers. Given the complicated nature of 3D printing, a number of copyright, intellectual property right and dilemmas have been unveiled.  

The 3D printing process involves two major steps. The first being the initial computer aided design (CAD) phase and the second being the translation of that CAD to a 3-Dimeniosnal rendition of the design. In some cases manufacturers may have copyright protection for CAD which are deemed unique or innovative.  On the hand, CAD which contain specifications for general or common items such as a bottle or a shoe (generally item which no one can lay intellectual claim to) will most likely not be offered the same protection.

Now taking a look at the wicked question scenario which considers the 3D printing or artificial limbs at a cheap rate of around $200 compared to the $10, 000 or so normally spent in manufacturing artificial limbs.

Imagine you are the CEO of a company that designs and manufactures prosthetics. You have a large workforce, and significant research and design costs. You learn that an aid agency in a third world country with a long history of civil war is using 3D printing technology to reproduce prosthetics built by your company for residents there who have lost limbs in the conflict.

Considering your responsibilities to your company, your employees and shareholders, as well as your moral duty, and with some consideration to the effect your choices may have on the public image of the company and yourself...what would you do?


The first thing to consider here would be to determine if my organization has a patent for the design of the prosthetics we produce.  Given that there are different types of prosthetics with different designs, produced using different types of technology, some designs have a patent due to their unique and innovative nature. Some other prosthetics have more general designs and do not have any form of patent protection.

So, if my organization produces a general \ indistinguishable type of artificial limb then we have no legal grounds to pursue this legal aid organization.  As a CEO I will have to look for my organization to remain competitive in the market. If 3D printing is the way to go now, the organization can also offer a product line of 3D printed limbs which will be cheaper (and most likely less durable).

On the other hand, if my organization holds a unique design for the prosthetics we produce, my position and obligations will force me to put a stop to the 3D printing of the limbs by the aid agency. However, ethically I will offer the aid agency alternative solutions to ensure they are able to continue providing these 3D printed prosthetics to the community.  One will be to ask the aid agency to make use of a general design which does not violate any patent or copyrights. The other will be for the aid agency to enter into an agreement with my organization, where we take over the printing of the 3D prosthetics and still offer them to the community at a cheap rate. This way my employees are still working and the community has access to cheaper prosthetics.