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3D printing is a game changer for product liability

Not that long ago, 3D printing was considered a revolutionary idea. Once found solely in the domains of large industries like aerospace engineers and medical device manufacturers, today 3D printing is becoming almost commonplace. Parents can even buy scaled down versions, in the form of 3D doodle pens, as holiday and birthday gifts for their children. With the prevalence of 3D printers, however, come a slew of new challenges to the area of product liability.

Typically two questions need to be answered in product liability: “What is the product?” and “Who is the manufacturer?” Traditionally, the answers to these questions were fairly straightforward. Say pajamas, thought to be flame retardant, suddenly catches on fire. The product is the pajamas, and the manufacturer is whoever made the clothes.

In 3D printing, however, a printer creates the end product using instructions from a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file. Think of a CAD file as the blueprints for making the product. An engineer or designer creates a CAD file and the printer prints accordingly. To date, courts have not been able to agree on whether the “product” in product liability cases is the CAD file or the end product.

They are having an equally difficult time determining who the manufacturer is in the case of 3D printed products. Going back to the pajama example, traditionally the manufacturer bought the cloth and other materials, made the pajamas in his factory and shipped them out to customers. So it was pretty obvious who the manufacturer was.

In 3D printing, however, one company might make the printer, another might create the CAD file and yet a third might be responsible for the actual printing. As 3D printed products gain a larger foothold in our society, it’s going to become critical to tease out who is responsible for the creation of a harmful product.

Technology, while critical to our lives and wonderful indeed, does bring with it a host of interesting problems and complications. This is especially true in the world of law.