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3-D Printing: Potential Insurance and Legal Implications

Post written by: Matthew Wachter

shutterstock_285473141On Earth, an engineer transmits the schematics for a wrench needed by the astronauts, floating weightless 249 miles above. Instantly, the machine whirs to life. At the speed of light, the intangible computer program reaches low-earth orbit and emerges from the wondrous machine as fully-formed tool. This is not science fiction. This wrench, and 19 other objects created on the International Space Station via 3-D Printing, will return to Earth later this year where they will be compared to “ground samples” printed by the same machine before launch. [1]

The implications of 3-D Printing are staggering, and in the wrong hands, terrifying.

  • Need a new pair of shoes for a last minute dinner-date? Print them.
  • Need a new knob for your kitchen cabinet. Print it.
  • Need a gun and can’t pass the necessary background checks? Print it?

What exactly is 3-D Printing?

International legal firm Kennedys Law LLP describes it this way, “3-D printing – technically known as additive manufacturing – can be traced back to photosculpture and topography in the 1800s. The first successful attempts at additive manufacturing occurred in the 1970s. Since then, they have developed and, indeed, boomed over the last 25 years.

3-D printing is the process of making three-dimensional physical objects of virtually any form/shape from a digital model design on a computer.”[2]

As the potential uses for 3-D printing are infinite, so are the potential legal implications and associated insurance risks. Besides the obvious product liability risks and inevitable intellectual property disputes, the liability issues are equally mind-boggling.

Who is at fault if a 3-D printed product is involved in a personal injury or financial loss?

According to Risk and Insurance Magazine, “… tracing a product and proving liability between the retailer/hobbyist who printed and sold the product and the manufacturer of the 3-D printer and the original digital designer of the product could prove problematic. Some may argue that the manufacturers of the 3-D printers and software should be responsible for product liability claims arising from 3-D printing errors but it is likely that liability will have to be established on a case-by-case basis.”[3]

Further, according to Insurance Journal, “General liability insurers will need to adapt to a world in which intellectual property rights infringement is the rule rather than the exception.” [4] From an Insurer standpoint, the onus will be on the agents, underwriters, and risk managers to make sure they are asking the proper questions, and are considering the implications of 3-D printed objects. At the end of the day, understanding these risks will allow legislators and departments of insurance to better regulate these risks, and Insurers to better create corresponding products and coverages.

 

Sources:

[1] http://www.space.com/28095-3d-printer-space-station-ratchet-wrench.html

[2] http://www.kennedyslaw.com/article/3dprintedproducts/

[3] http://www.riskandinsurance.com/3d-printing-offers-new-risk-challenges/

[4] http://www.insurancejournal.com/magazines/features/2013/05/06/290460.htm

 

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