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3D printing and the law

The costs and technical sophistication associated with 3D printing currently keep it in the realm of industry and enthusiasts. That doesn’t mean the legal community can afford to ignore it.

Thoughts on criminal usage of 3D printing

Given the potential for misuse of the technology, criminal charges could be levelled on manufacturers, but Paul Banwatt doesn’t see it that way. “What if somebody goes to the hardware store, buys a hammer, breaks a window and robs a house?” asked the chief operating officer and general counsel for the Toronto-based 3D scanner manufacturer Matter and Form, Inc. “I don’t know that toolmakers bear responsibility for use of the tool unless they do something to encourage bad behaviour.”

Certain scenarios may put Banwatt’s assertion to the test.

3D-printed guns

The most sensationalized use of 3D printers involves homemade guns. Mike Dover said early models, like the Liberator, weren’t great. Shooters with malicious intent were about as likely to harm other people as they would by hurling a brick at them.

“However, typical to other open source projects, once a plan is uploaded into the commons, engineers will debug a faulty design and develop better versions,” wrote the Toronto-based college business professor in his book, Dante’s Infinite Monkeys. “Already, designs for an AR-15-styled gun (one of the guns Adam Lanza used when he killed 26 people in Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn.) that can fire hundreds of rounds are available online.”

3D-printed drugs

Illegal drugs can be 3D printed. Dover figures the ability to create supply closer to demand will make it harder to prosecute suppliers of illegal substances.

He mentioned another twist: synthetically manufactured substances, often referred to as designer drugs. “It’s hard for the government to keep up with deciding what’s illegal,” Dover said. Drug makers may alter “a formula a little bit so the user still gets the high available from the illegal version, but the legislation hasn’t yet made that new formula illegal. That is a challenge for the police and the courts.” Dover pictures drug manufacturers saying, “This is a house cleanser! It’s not our fault if a few bad apples use it to get high.”

3D-printed components

Maya Eckstein noted that in the worlds of auto manufacturing and aviation, 3D printing is quickly coming into its own. “Last year, General Electric produced its first 3D printed parts for airplanes,” said the Richmond, Va.,-based partner and head of the intellectual property practice group at Hunton & Williams LLP. She added that in a few years, GE is set to produce 100,000 different airplane parts. She emphasized that other manufacturers in various industries are following suit.

“What if a sophisticated counterfeiter gets a copy of the computer file used to print that part and makes it using substandard materials?” Eckstein asked. “One purpose of 3D printing is to replicate parts with virtually 100 per cent precision. Now you’ve made it more difficult to identify counterfeit goods.”

“What happens if that airplane part is used and there’s an accident? How can the manufacturer attest ‘That’s not my part. I can’t be liable for this!’ ” Anti-counterfeiting technologies have been developed, Eckstein added.

Even when the correct materials and processes are followed, questions linger. 3D printing could, for instance, be used to speed up construction. “It can build the foundation for a house more quickly than previous methods,” said Dover. “If something goes wrong, how is the responsibility divided?” He listed the various parties involved, from the people who turned the machine on to the programmers who created the algorithm used to build the foundation. “This is an open question,” he said.

Regulations affecting 3D-printing

It’s still too early to discuss legislation governing the use of 3D printers. Regulation is another matter. “The FAA has guidelines about 3D printing of aviation parts,” Eckstein said. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines on 3D printing of medical devices,” she continued. “The FDA has approved almost 100 different medical devices that are 3D-printed. It has also approved at least one drug manufactured using 3D printing. It’s used to treat epilepsy.”

Eckstein added: “All the relevant standard-setting organizations are getting involved, issuing standards for 3D printing that would cover everything from the computer file, for the file format, to the type of material that can be used, the setup of the printer and so forth.”

3D-printed demonstratives (models)

Lawyers may one day view 3D printing the same way they think about 2D printing today. For instance, demonstratives (things attorneys use for “demonstration purposes only” during litigation and do not submit as actual evidence) have largely been limited to two-dimensional objects. That need no longer be the case.

“3D printing is used to create models so jurors can better understand larger or smaller objects,” said Garnett Lee, president of Richmond, Va.,-based litigation support provider Cadence Legal Technologies, whose firm uses a third-party vendor to create 3D models for clients.

“We can scale down large objects into models that fit in an attorney’s hand.” Similarly, “tiny objects can be printed in larger sizes,” he added. “A small LED bulb has diodes, chips, lenses. They all can be enlarged. That helps a jury better comprehend the product and perhaps make it easier to see an infringement.”

Attorneys who want to use 3D-printed models in court need to consider related costs and timelines. Their size, complexity, the materials used (like dyes and powders) plus consulting, sketching and 3D modelling all factor into the decision. Garnett said 3D models range from $500 to thousands of dollars.

He advised lawyers treat the time required for a 3D model as they would for e-discovery or other consulting. “If attorneys come to us a week from trial and they want a 3D-printed model, it won’t happen,” he said.

Much of the work goes into the planning stages. “Once we have a digital model, it can range from hours to days. A femur would take a couple of days. A car part could take from 5-7 days.”

This article is the second in a two-part series on 3D printing and its effects on the legal industry. Read the first part here. This article originally appeared on The Lawyer’s Daily website, published by LexisNexis Canada Inc.