3D Printing Products at Home: Manufacturer, Consumer, or Both?

Soon, instead of clicking buy now and entering your shipping information, you may be able to download a file, click “Start,” and watch a 3D printer at work. Thus, the manufacturer-consumer will be born.

The relationship between the traditional manufacturer and a manufacturer-consumer may, and probably should, throw a proverbial wrench into some of our products liability concepts. Traditionally, manufacturers have been held (almost) absolutely liable to consumers for injuries suffered on account of defective products. But when a consumer and manufacturer are one and the same, while the silhouette of a traditional manufacturer looms in the background, will our current products liability law become obsolete?

Under a decades-old doctrine, states generally hold manufacturers liable for products that were sold in a defective form. The concept makes sense because the alternative rule—requiring the consumer to prove exactly how the manufacturer breached its duty—would be too harsh. When a defective product is initially sold, every party in the supply chain may be culpable. Depending on the circumstances, each party is impliedly or explicitly indemnified by the party preceding them in the supply chain until the culpable party is reached. Thus, the burden of proving who or what caused the defect lies with those who brought the product to market.

As 3D printers grow in popularity, affordability, and versatility, manufacturers will increasingly share and sell their CAD files (blueprints allowing a 3D printer to create a particular item). Manufacturers and potential manufacturer-consumers alike must be mindful of the consequences of these new transactions.

Manufacturers will have to consider how to limit their liability through asking those who download CAD files to agree to certain terms. Meanwhile, the manufacturer-consumer will need to be mindful of what rights are waived and what obligations are undertaken. The scenario becomes more complicated when the manufacturer-consumer sells the product to another.

Additionally, traditional manufacturers may meet an increasing demand for customizable products by allowing a manufacturer-consumer to tweak the design found in a CAD file. Even a small alteration could change a safe design into a defective one. Or, the change could require a new warning to ensure safe use. Accordingly, a traditional manufacturer must be mindful of its potential exposure when considering implementing some of the new distribution and customization avenues presented by the widespread use of 3D printers.

Of course, the discussion of these issues and others continues across the web. For example, Jonathan Moskin discusses many intellectual property issues presented by the increased use of 3D printers in his article, “Obstacles and Opportunities from 3D Printing.” While no one can predict the future of manufacturing or 3D printing, or the associated law, it is safe to say that manufacturers and consumers alike will feel the effects of 3D printers. As events unfold, all parties involved in these transactions should be aware of potential consequences.