3-D Printing: Benefits and Risks

3-D printing has taken off in recent years. An additive manufacturing technique, it is the process of printing layers of material on top of one another to “grow” a product. Product creation relies on computer-aided design (CAD) files. Stereolithography software reads the CAD file and uses a material such as paper, powder or metal to print the shape. The number of printing materials available is constantly growing and currently includes thermoplastics, rubber, clay, porcelain, metal, ceramic powders, plaster, paper … even edible materials and human tissue.

There are five unique printing processes:

  1. Selective laser melting or direct metal laser sintering: A laser is used to fuse together metallic powder into the desired shape.
  2. Selective laser sintering: Lasers are used to fuse together small pieces of material like plastic or metal into the desired shape.
  3. Fused deposition modeling: Plastic or metal wiring is unspun from a coil and printed in layers to create the desired shape.
  4. Stereolithography: Ultraviolet-curable resin is laid down and built up, layer by layer. Ultraviolet light is shone on each layer after it has been put down to solidify the resin.
  5. Laminated object manufacturing: Layers of material are laid down and glued to one another and then shaped with a laser or knife.

The technology for 3-D printing has been around for nearly 30 years, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that printers and printing materials became an affordable option for businesses. Because of the high demand for the technology, the price dropped from about $20,000 in the 1980s to around just $1,000 today, leading to a rise in sales. And as the price dropped, creativity grew.

Printers that were originally used just for prototyping began to be used to print manufacturing materials, such as molds. Today, companies in a variety of industries, including architecture, construction, automotive, dental and medical, engineering, biotechnology, fashion and education are experimenting with using 3-D printing to manufacture end products. This innovative practice comes with its share of benefits and risks.

The Benefits

3-D printing has a number of benefits:

  • Less waste: Unlike more traditional subtractive manufacturing techniques that remove material by cutting or sawing to form a product, 3-D printing builds the product from the ground up, resulting in significantly less material waste.
  • Reduced overhead: Printing materials and a CAD file are all that is required to create a product. It’s not necessary to purchase molds, create custom manufacturing materials, hire laborers or even have a designated manufacturing facility.
  • Intricate details: Almost any shape imaginable can be printed, including shapes with complex detail that would be costly and difficult—in some cases too difficult—to create with subtractive manufacturing.
  • One-of-a-kind products: Some products, such as hearing aids and prosthetic limbs, are time-consuming and expensive to create with traditional manufacturing techniques because they must be customized to fit a single end user.
  • Reduced warehousing costs: Offering long-term warranties for replacement parts is much more efficient for companies that utilize 3-D printing. The company can simply save a CAD file for each product part and then print the part on an as-needed basis instead of storing older parts in a warehouse.

The Risks

It’s also important to recognize the potential risks that this new technology poses:

  • Copyright infringement: CAD files that infringe on patents and design rights are already beginning to show up on the Internet. The piracy of digital design files will likely be widespread and difficult to police. Companies will need to insure themselves against this risk and find innovative ways to guard intellectual property.
  • Compromised supply chain: Widely available CAD files mean that compromised parts could enter the supply chain. Even if a company is not using 3-D printing in its own operations, it is still at risk of manufacturing products with defective or unsafe 3-D-printed components, and of being held liable for the resulting damage.
  • Exposure to ultrafine particles (UFPs): Printers without proper ventilation can expose users to the UFPs that are released during the printing process. Inhaled UFPs can cause adverse health effects, including an increased risk of asthma, heart disease and stroke.
  • Global public safety: Currently, no legislation exists to regulate 3-D printing, so anyone, anywhere can download anything. In 2012, Defense Distributed, a company based in the United States, created a CAD file for a 3-D printable gun. Soon after, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security called for the file to be taken down, but not before it had been downloaded by more than 100,000 people in places as far away as Germany, Spain and Brazil. There are more opportunities for obtaining banned products with 3-D printing.

The Future

Despite these risks, companies are looking to 3-D printing technology to rethink processes and improve business operations.

Industry experts predict that 3-D printing will transform manufacturing as we know it. Exciting projects like rebuilding coral reefs, growing functioning organs and body parts and replicating priceless artifacts for scientific study will continue to capture the attention of the public and encourage further innovation.

Have you considered the impact of 3-D technology on your business? Contact Consolidated Insurance + Risk Management today to learn more.