There is general consensus that 3D printing has potentially revolutionary implications for industry and, along with it, for the law. In terms of products liability law, its consequences for industry and consumers injured by 3D-printed products are potentially just as far-reaching.
Consider a fact pattern under which an auto parts manufacturer makes CAD files available to auto parts stores so that they may 3D print replacement auto parts on demand and on-site in response to customer needs. An auto parts store sells the 3D-printed part to a customer, who later is involved in an accident and blames the 3D-printed part for causing the accident.
Most engineering professionals know 3D printing technology isn’t new — it’s actually been around for several decades. As the technology has evolved, more industrial users are applying it to address product complexity, time and budget constraints, as well as prototyping. Industries leading the way for industrial applications include aerospace, medical, automotive and dental.
According to research firm Gartner, in its 2014 report titled “3D Printer Market Survey Reveals Enterprise Demand Drivers for Technology, Printer and Vendor Decision Making,” early adopters of the technology were able to easily identify cost savings. “Respondents felt overwhelmingly that using a 3D printer as part of their supply chain generally reduces the cost of existing processes, especially research and product development costs,” said Pete Basilier, research director at Gartner. “The mean cost reduction for finished goods is between 4.1% and 4.3%, which is an impressive figure. It shows that early adopters of the technology are finding clear benefits, which are likely to drive further adoption.”
The market doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. Wohler’s Report 2016 stated the industry grew to $5.165 billion with a CAGR of 25.9%, and the number of industrial-grade AM system vendors rose from 49 to 62.
An overview of how 3D printing materials and technologies combine for different outcomes and applications.
Illustration courtesy of Additively.com.
Technology key: BJ (Binder Jetting), EBM (Electron Beam Melting), FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling), HP (Hybrid Processes), LM (Laser Melting), LS (Laser Sintering), MJ (Material Jetting), PJ (Photopolymer Jetting), SL (Stereolithography)
With 3D printing technologies emerging rapidly and a wide variety of industries looking to adopt 3D printing to streamline production and save on material costs, there is a lot of potential for market expansion. In fact, the research firm Canalys has forecast the 3D printing market, which includes 3D printer sales, materials, and associated services, will continue to experience rapid growth and reach US $16.2 billion by 2018.
Canalys Senior Analyst, Tim Shepherd, points out that “this is a market with enormous growth potential now that the main barriers to up-take are being addressed. Advances in technology are yielding faster print times and enabling objects to be printed in greater combinations of materials, colors, and finishes. Crucially, prices are also falling, making the technology an increasingly feasible option for a broad variety of enterprise and consumer uses, restricted only by computer-aided design competencies and printer availability – both of which are set to improve significantly.”
It is no secret that all branches of the United States military have been keeping a close eye on 3D printing technology. With the variety of uses across all industries, 3D printing has proven its versatility. Besides the ongoing research in a number of directions, such as 3D printing of replacement bones, battle armor, and vehicle parts, the Navy has already successfully tested ballistic missiles containing 3D printed components.
According to Business Insider, new interest is being shown in the field recently, as many patents on the original technology are expiring, thereby allowing for competition that will result in better quality products at a much lower cost. The first major patents expired in 2009 allowing new printers capable of using metal, wood, and fabric to become more available.
The ability to 3D print spare parts in a moment’s notice is exactly why NASA is experimenting with zero-gravity 3D printing, but this application can also be a huge advantage down here on earth. German national railway company Deutsche Bahn has also recognized the advantages of low storage costs and custom-fitting production, and is hoping to apply that to their own rail network in the near future. To realize this, they have just set up a collaboration of companies, startups and research institutes called Mobility goes Additive, which will explore possibilities and promote end-product 3D printing.
The existence of Mobility goes Additive has recently been confirmed by Deutsche Bahn’s innovation manager Stefanie Bricwede, who talked about their plans and ambitions during the 3D Druck für Automotive conference in Ettlingen, Germany. As she explained at the event, they decided to set up a separate cluster of partners to increase the focus on ground-based mobility. 3D printing innovations, she says, are currently mostly being driven by the aviation industry and therefore dictated by an obsession with weight. But companies like Deutsche Bahn focus on completely different advantages, and therefore require a different approach.
A report from Clare Scott at 3DPrint.com on the events in Cleveland, Ohio.
I spent my day yesterday sitting in the main ballroom at Cleveland’s Ritz Carlton hotel with a few hundred attorneys, business leaders, and academics from across Northeast Ohio to discuss how 3D printing is changing how we do business. It was the second annual 3D Printing Conference hosted by Benesch Attorneys at Law, a prominent law firm whose focus areas include intellectual property law – a hot-button topic in the 3D printing industry right now. Unsurprisingly, intellectual property issues were a primary focus of the conference, formally entitled “What Every Business Must Know Today About 3D Printing/Additive Manufacturing.”
So what does every business need to know about 3D printing? In short – everything. The speakers and panelists, who ranged from manufacturing leaders to college professors, all emphasized, repeatedly, that every business, no matter what the sector or client base, needs to get familiar with 3D printing – and fast. Dave Pierson, Senior Design Engineer for the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET), opened his presentation with a quote he attributed to 3D printing industry expert Terry Wohlers: “If you are not running in this space, you are already falling behind.” That was the consensus shared by everyone who presented yesterday: businesses, if you don’t leverage 3D printing, your competitors will, so start implementing it now.
Industry demands such as lightweighting are requiring suppliers to take an active role in developing new products with new materials at a faster pace. Robust 3D printing services are helping to meet this demand.
As automation software and connected machinery continue to undergo technological advances, manufacturing suppliers find themselves in the advantageous position to help companies from nearly every major industry develop products faster and more cost-effectively than ever before, thereby enabling innovation and rapid commercialization.
To fully leverage this modern-day manufacturing automation, it is important for manufacturing suppliers to recognize the current trends and challenges that product designers and engineers from different industries are facing — automakers are tackling stiff fuel economy regulations, an aging population is demanding user-centric devices, aircraft developers are working diligently to replace obsolete consumer technology on planes as well as to lighten the load to meet fuel-efficiency targets.
The best manufacturing suppliers recognize and adapt to these important industry trends by offering manufacturing services that help meet industry expectations and regulatory mandates.
It seems that 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, may be crossing a threshold from a period of hype and experimentation into one of rapid deployment and maturation. The technology has long been touted as a potentially revolutionary development for manufacturers. That optimism quickly gave way to a chorus of skeptics and falling stock prices.
But 3D-printed parts and products are quickly making their way into end products — from a printed car to athletic shoes to a working NASA rocket engine. 3D printers are helping small companies prototype and manufacture at low costs with increasing quality while industrial 3D printers, once almost exclusively used for prototyping, are being rolled out on production lines. Filaments are getting stronger, resolutions higher, and a wider variety of materials can be printed with additive manufacturing, including metals.
So has 3D printing delivered on its promise of a manufacturing revolution?
Most hearing aids in the U.S. are now custom-made on 3D printers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the first 3D-printed pills. Carmakers have started using 3D technology to produce parts. And last year saw the first demonstration of a digital printer producing multilayer, standards-based circuit boards. Imagine the changes afoot in the pharmaceutical, medical device, automotive, and consumer electronics industries.
3D printing is poised to redefine global manufacturing and distribution. It could upend supply chains, business models, customer relationships, and even entrepreneurship itself. It may do to physical goods what cloud computing is now doing to digital services; what the PC, internet, and smart mobility have done to personal computing; and what outsourcing did to software development and business processing — take mass distribution and innovation to the next level while realigning the very geography of work and trade.