Jan 25, 2017 | By David

Here at 3ders.org we know that 3D printing is shaking up the manufacturing industry in all sorts of ways, but what will the legal implications be for companies seeking to profit from these new developments? Prominent American law firm Reed Smith recently established a new team which is intending to address this question. In a published 55-page report, the various novel legal issues raised by 3D printing as a manufacturing process are tackled, with particular reference to the key topics of national security, constitutional law, and product liability.

James Beck, a lawyer at the Philadelphia-based firm, says that ‘‘the idea of the end user becoming the manufacturer pretty much turns everything on its head.’’ Because 3D printing involves the use of software that is widely available and easily accessible, individuals are now able to make relatively complex products on their own. This transferral of manufacturing capability is complicating issues relating to who bears the responsibility for the proper functioning of a product. 3D printing can be used in various ways to produce firearms, automobile parts, and medical equipment, all of which can be major cause for litigation if something goes wrong.

Beck spent much of his career representing pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers, and it is through his observation of developments in the life sciences industry that he became interested in the legal implications of 3D printing techniques. According to him, many of the major liability issues remain unresolved. Although there have been no major cases of a manufacturer or individual using 3D printing being sued so far, the increasing deployment of the technology means that it is unlikely to stay that way.

Problems arise due to the complex nature of the 3D printing process and the objects that it produces. Traditional legal definitions would seem to be less applicable in these cases. Whereas purely electronic data is not classified as a product in itself under the law, electricity is. This suggests the uncertain nature of the legal terrain that manufacturers are entering, and the necessity for the courts to keep pace with technological developments. Liability law currently provides protection for software developers, and printed materials are protected under the First Amendment. However, 3D techniques place computer aided design software at the heart of the manufacturing process. So integral is the software to the finished product, some lawyers are now suggesting that software makers may face some legal exposure in the event of malfunctioning or personal injury.

As it stands, conventional large-scale manufacturers using 3D printing would be subject to traditional "strict liability" law. Knowingly putting an unsafe product on the market would make them wholly liable, regardless of their customer’s actions. Individual designers or programmers who contribute to products would not face this same kind of responsibility. A hobbyist making parts for a classic car or a pistol, for example, who had no intention to systematically sell their product to a market for their own profit, would not be liable in the same way that a big manufacturing company would. This would potentially increase the number of accidents or injuries due to the huge amount of dangerous or defective products that could be made, and victims could have very little recourse with the law remaining as it is.

Beck acknowledges that Reed Smith’s initiative hasn’t created much work so far, as 3D printing is still ‘‘too new,’’ although a few traditional manufacturers have been in touch for advice as to how they may protect themselves from lawsuits relating to these new products. As groundbreaking as the developments in the 3D field are, major companies and individual enthusiasts alike may soon find that with this great power, comes great responsibility.



Posted in 3D Printing Service



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