Responsibility and the Thingiverse

Relationships between doctors and patients are changing due to information available on the internet. Individuals research their symptoms online and visit their doctors equipped with hunches and printouts. This behaviour has been met with mixed responses from the medical community; some doctors feel that their authority is being challenged and others are happy to see patients take an active interest in their health.

One group of people is taking this further and creating assistive technologies, particularly prosthetics, using open-source pattern and 3D printing technologies. In this blog post I’ll use the term ‘assistive technology’ to refer to an item that enables a person with a disability to complete a task.

Currently, assistive technologies are costly, slow to produce and have a high abandonment rate. 3D printing enables fast and cheap personal-scaling manufacturing. Open source peer-to-peer networks enable knowledge distribution meaning that physical artefacts can be made by people globally. As a result of this process the boundaries between production and consumption are blurred.

One of these networks is the Thingiverse which has designs for over 100,000 objects. These can be made, edited (remixed) and upvoted. People making these objects are not experts but often the end-users and their loved ones. These DIY assistive technologies are typically cheaper to produce than traditional technologies and have a lower abandonment rate. This could be due to their highly personalised nature making them more appropriate to the user’s needs or the user’s relationship and investment to a technology that she has actively created rather than been prescribed.

While some of the benefits of this approach are apparent, issues around risk and responsibility have yet to be resolved. In printing your own assistive technology, the relationship between patient and the NHS has been replaced with a relationship between the patient as maker, the producer of a design and the open source platform as a mediator. The relationship could also extend to include the people that upvoted a design online, and the organisations associated with the 3D printer: the manufacturers, the institution that houses the printer (this could be a public makerspace or a workplace) and the supplier of the raw materials. A simple relationship has been replaced with a splintered one.

The Thingiverse has terms and conditions relating to intellectual property and responsibility; they are crude and place all the responsibility with the designer of an object. (I find this surprising given the need for Thingiverse to encourage people to submit designs.) Such a broad set of terms do not acknowledge the many roles involved in this emerging manufacturing process.

Like many technologies 3D printing, has been the subject of a lot of hype. I believe that it will lead to a transformation in manufacturing that will touch on our day-to-day lives. I hope to see more nuanced discussions around responsibility take place and but it seems that there is no easy way of ascribing responsibility for risks in this new global and splintered manufacturing process.


Buehler, E., Branham, S., Ali, A., Chang, J. J., Hofmann, M. K., Hurst, A., & Kane, S. K. (2015, April). Sharing is caring: Assistive technology designs on thingiverse. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 525-534). ACM.

Jiménez, A. C. (2014). The right to infrastructure: a prototype for open source urbanism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32(2), 342-362.

Graham, S and S Marvin (2001) ‘Postscript’ in Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition London


Hand robot InMoov by Gael Langevin




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