3-D Printing Raises a Host of Product Liability Issues

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3-D printing is booming worldwide, and the technology is being used to produce a wide range of products, from the aerospace, bio-medical and automotive industries, to virtually any plastic based household consumer project you can imagine. As with any new and expanding technology, 3-D printing brings with it a wide range of new and potentially  complicated issues related to product liability.

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3-D printing is a process of creating solid objects from a computer aided design (CAD) file.  The 3-D printer creates the object based on the blueprint supplied by the CAD file by laying down successive layers of material until the final object is created.  Deloitte recently projected that 220,000 3-D printers will be sold worldwide in 2015, and that by 2017, about 70% of 3-D printers will be sold to consumers.

Several recent news articles highlight some of the risks and issues that have come to the forefront with respect to 3-D printing, including a recent study which found that some 3-D printed parts may leach toxic chemicals. In addition, California has passed laws restricting the manufacturing of guns using 3-D printers , and Australia  has proposed an outright ban of the manufacturing and distribution of 3-D printed guns,  as well as outlawing the sharing of digital blueprints for printing 3-D guns.  Finally, as 3-D printers become cheaper and more accessible to consumers, complaints about the quality of lower costs printers are more common.

The implications in the area of product liability are numerous. Since 3-D printers allow individual consumers to “manufacture” various products for their own use, as well as for sale or distribution to others, the issue  of  who may be held liable for a defective product produced by individual consumers using a 3-D printer become complicated.  Along with the individual manufacturing the product, potential liability may also lie with the manufacturer of the 3-D printer, the manufacturer of  the raw materials used in the printing process, and the designer and/or seller of the computer program for the specific end product.

Questions arise as to whether the individual consumer producing products with a 3-D printer is engaged in the business of selling said product, which would give rise to a causes of action under the traditional theories of strict liability. If the “manufacturer” of the product cannot be held liable under theories of strict liability, then it is likely the manufacturer of the 3-D printer, the raw materials, and the designers will be targeted, since they are in the business of manufacturing and selling the various components involved in the 3-D printing process. These traditional manufacturers and can be held liable not only on theories of strict liability, but also negligence claims for failure to warn, and potentially for failing to properly instruct or inform the end users of the 3-D printing components  how to safely produce the final product. As such, manufacturers of 3-D printers,  the raw materials, and the computer designs for 3-D printed products need to be aware of the changing landscape of product liability law in this area.

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