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The unforeseen liability surrounding 3-D printing

Post written by Greg Wetherwax, Line of Business Manager

3D printingWith manufacturing technology expanding exponentially and entrepreneurial ideas flourishing, a number of new products have been created and existing products are being modified to meet the needs and desires of today’s consumers. These new or modified products will create new exposures and emerging issues. One of the front-runners of these emerging issues is 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing.

3-D printing is a process of making a three-dimensional object of virtually any shape from a digital model. 3-D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material (rubber, plastic, paper, metal powder, etc.) are laid down in different shapes.

This technology has been around since the 1980s, but with today’s advanced technology and reduced cost to purchase a 3-D printer, their use has grown significantly. It is estimated this $2.5 billion industry through 2013 will grow to more than $13 billion by 2018. Although most 3-D processing machines are used commercially, there is a growing trend to purchase these as high-tech toys for personal use.

3D printing technology is used for both prototyping and distributed manufacturing, with applications in architecture, construction (AEC), industrial design, automotive, military, civil engineering, dental, medical, biotech (human tissue replacement), fashion, footwear, jewelry, eyewear, education, geographic information systems, food and many other fields.

For example, 3dprint.com reported a company used 3-D technology to print an entire six-story apartment building and a house, using a 3-D printer measuring 20 feet tall, 33 feet wide and 132 feet long. As its “toner,” it used recycled construction waste, such as concrete and fiberglass, combined with a special hardening agent. Other examples of products being manufactured include automotive chassis, chairs, guns, prosthetics, teeth, nuts and bolts, swimming pools and even human tissue.

The process of using 3-D technology and processing can create additional exposures of which underwriters, insurance agents and insureds should be aware. Some of these exposures include:

  • Patent infringement, copyright, trademark – someone using a 3-D printer to duplicate and manufacture a product on which someone else has the patent
  • Manufacturing a product without all the appropriate safety features (i.e. – heat sensors, ground wires, guarding system)
  • Certain petroleum-based materials, plastics and other substances used in the 3-D process can release nanoparticles and toxins into the air that can be inhaled and absorbed directly into the skin. These nanoparticles and toxins can cause lung diseases, bronchitis, asthma, and, in some cases, cancer.
  • If not properly ventilated, 3-D printers can overheat, causing a fire resulting in property damage to the building and personal property.

As 3-D technology grows and advances, the cost of the 3-D printers and “toners” will come down to the point where everyone might have one in their home and every business might use them. Similar to the adoption and usage of drones, as more people and industries use the 3-D printing process, the liability and property damage exposures increase.

This emerging issue can not be ignored. In fact, the International Organization for Standardization is discussing the merits of introducing classifications and rates on companies that design and build 3-D printers and maintain them, as well as companies that use 3-D printing within their manufacturing process.

3-D printing, or additive manufacturing technology, has been around for more than three decades, but not until recently has this technology taken off to the point where it has caught the attention of individuals, manufacturing companies, insurance companies and even regulators.
The insurance-related exposures associated with 3-D printing are being assessed, and as an industry, we need to be at the forefront of this emerging issue.

If you have questions about the unforeseen liability issues around 3-D printing, contact your local independent insurance agent. For a list of independent agents in your area, click here.

Do you currently use 3-D printing as part of your manufacturing process? If so, please share your experiences in the Comments box below.

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