3D printing seemed poised to take the world by storm a few years ago, but as of 2018, this form of personalized manufacturing is still waiting to reach its full potential. The floodgates have not fully opened for various reasons, but there are a lot of opportunities in 3D printing. Here are some things to think about. 

What are these legal complications?

3D printing hinges on two things: a digital schematic of an item (like a CAD file) and a “printer”, or a device that can lend form to a raw material such as moldable plastic that can be woven into patterned cloth. The printer reads the file and instructs the connected machine to execute its commands on the raw material, which sounds simple enough.

When objects are created in a factory, the manufacturer retains some measure of control over both its material property and its intellectual property. In contrast, when the manufacturing is done by individual consumers in their homes and the company owns only the intellectual property—not the object itself from inception to creation—the company cedes some control over what the end result might look like. They also lose control over who can potentially create a 3D printed object. The independent printer could potentially alter the original design, use the product in unintended ways, or disseminate derivatives to others.

The creation, distribution, identification, and tracking of replica and derivative files will likely follow the same legal trajectory as developments in the entertainment industry, which have kept forensics experts and policy makers close on the heels of those who profit from piracy. Intellectual property laws will need to stay flexible to keep pace with technological developments that make reproduction and illegal commercial dissemination possible.

But these aren’t the only legal complications that in the 3D printing landscape. Another big concern is products liability. If a design or object is used to cause harm (for example, turned into a weapon, an unreliable tool, a dangerous drug or faulty medication), where should liability lie?

And finally, how will data and information associated with the file be stored and transferred? Who owns that data? If a doctor uses a 3D printer to create a custom fit prosthetic, a tooth, or a digital replica of a patient’s organ, who owns the resulting personal information generated by the use of that 3D printed object and how will that information be protected by privacy laws and security infrastructures?

These might look like minor concerns, but they have serious implications for innovative souls who hope to enter the uncharted landscape of 3D printing entrepreneurship. If you’d like to launch a business that relies on this technology, infinite possibilities lie in front of you. But you’ll need to convince your investors that you have strategies in place to address the issues listed above. As the world evolves and you evolve with it, be ready for the unexpected.