3D printing and the product liability puzzle

Written on 31 Mar 2017

3D printing has the potential to have a revolutionary impact on a wide range of industries. Its application to manufacturing processes will disrupt and transform supply chains in business and consumer markets alike, and industry is still only at the start of this journey.

Like any emerging technology, its use case has already been proved by early adopters. The aerospace, automotive and health sectors in particular, which have a substantial presence in the South West, have already embraced the technology. GE has unveiled the first officially- approved 3D printed engine part to fly in a commercial jet, and closer to home, a subsidiary of Airbus has produced the first 3D printed motorcycle. In health, 3D printed patient-specific implants are transforming the way operations are performed, and custom-built hip and bone replacements are increasingly common.

The global 3D printing industry is already worth around $7bn, up by over $1bn from 2014. However, with ever-increasing technological progress, the accessibility and adoption of 3D printing across a variety of applications will become more commonplace. This figure is set to treble by 2020 and, according to some estimates, to reach nearly $50bn by 2025.

The fact that an end-user, who may well be a consumer, can simply download some software and print an object without having to purchase the finished product from a supplier is a game-changer. All of the industry players – manufacturers, raw materials suppliers, logistics chain businesses and consumers – are therefore in uncharted territory. And as with a lot of “disruptive” technologies, existing legislation is not specifically designed to apply to this model.

Take product liability. Who will be held liable if objects created through the use of 3D printing technology, and then used by consumers and other end-users, turn out to be defective?

This is a challenging area because of the complexity of the supply chain and business models involved. In breaking down traditional concepts of who will be considered the ‘producer’ or ‘supplier’ of a 3D printed product, the manufacturing roles become blurred. It’s harder to pinpoint who should be responsible if a potential product liability issue arises. Potential parties involved are:

  • the manufacturer or supplier of the 3D printer and/or its printing materials (the “ink” in the printer)
  • the printer owner
  • the person who designed or sold the original object upon which a 3D printing design is based
  • the person who created or shared the blueprint of the object
  • the person who created the object using the printer
  • the person who sold the 3D-printed object
  • any operator of an online 3D printing marketplace

At the moment end users may well face considerable obstacles to imposing liability on those involved in the supply chain, unless an obvious fault exists. However, the UK’s existing product liability regime will no doubt in time be tested to adapt to the technology. It will be a fascinating area of legal and technological development.

3D printing presents seemingly boundless opportunities, but also legal uncertainties. If this is something you’re considering for your business, it’s best to be prepared and start taking advice early.