Companies employ 3D printing technology now more than ever, leveraging devices in pioneering ways. Its widespread usage helps businesses cut costs and manufacture products efficiently.
At the same time, the legal landscape surrounding 3D printers is underdeveloped, so those who use the technology must be mindful of the potential for unintended and unforeseen consequences.
3D printers use digital blueprints, known as Computer-Aided Design or CAD, files to quickly and efficiently create nearly any object. Manufacturers in countless industries recognize the technology’s versatility.
Indeed, 3D printing is rapidly growing in popularity. According to market research firm SmarTech Analysis, the sector reported $10.6 billion in revenue last year, which includes sales for additive hardware, materials, software and outsourced services.
Nearly a decade before reaching that point, some had the foresight to accurately predict that 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost anything.” The pervasive expansion spans every industry: 3D printing has become commonplace, ranging from scientists printing microscopic human tissue to engineers printing large-scale, pre-fabricated construction modules.
The COVID-19 pandemic further expanded its use. When medical professionals faced shortages of equipment, facemasks, shields and ventilator components, they looked to 3D printing to fill the gaps. Such expansive use exemplifies the sheer quantity of industries that can benefit from 3D printing.
This exponential growth brings with it a host of legal concerns. Some issues, like the use of 3D printers to manufacture “ghost guns,” garner significant media attention. Other issues, such as the implication of intellectual property rights, are often overlooked. Product liability concerns also are too often absent from consideration by interested parties.
Historically, when a product harms a person, that individual could assign liability by identifying the product’s manufacturer. Use of 3D printing, however, blurs the lines and presents a complicated array of questions that traditional product liability laws may not answer.
With so many players involved, who should be held responsible when something goes wrong? The company that manufactured the 3D printer? The designer of the CAD file? The distributor? Or even the individual who prints the product? As a result of this ambiguity, there may be several possible defendants in a 3D product’s supply chain.
Similarly, manufacturers should also be aware of the potential liability from 3D printer emissions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “the 3D printing process releases gasses and particulates which could pose health risks to users.”
In 2019, the Underwriters Laboratory published a standard for testing 3D printer emissions. Yet, the federal government lacks standardized emission testing protocols to minimizing health risks. But scientists argue these protocols are necessary.
Regardless of whether standardized testing protocols are on the horizon, as 3D printing becomes even more commonplace, companies and individuals should work closely with counsel to navigate the largely unchartered territory of product liability issues from 3D printed objects to avoid unexpected lawsuits.
Mitchell R. Edwards, Timothy M. Zabbo and Mark D. Hochberg practice in Hinckley Allen’s litigation group.