May 10, 2013 at 5:05 PM ET
With the announcement this week that a handgun made from a 3-D printer fired successfully, 3-D manufacturers may soon find themselves in a gray area when it comes to liability. From the looks of it, these companies aren’t ready for the new wave of customers and responsibility this might bring.
Designs for the Liberator plastic pistol have been downloaded more than 100,000 times already — before the U.S. government requested that the designs be taken down for fear they may violate arms-exporting laws.
Still, the designs are out there, accessible through sites such as The Pirate Bay. “Makers,” or hobbyists, with their own 3-D printers, such as the MakerBot Replicator 2 ($2,199) and 3DSystems CubeX ($2,499), are presumably still free to print it and whatever else they want. [See also: 3D Printers at Maker Faire: Faster, Cheaper, Easier to Use]
But makers without their own equipment also have the option of ordering various objects from 3-D printing services such as i.materialise, Sculpteo and Shapeways. Each service offers users the opportunity to shop existing designs as well as create and use their own.
There are far more hobbyist makers than manufacturers, but 3-D printing at home is far from commonplace. Judging from designs and items found online, most of what’s being produced is fairly innocuous — think jewelry, smartphone cases and troll dolls. Perhaps that's why these companies seem unprepared for potential crises.
A survey of these sites yielded no obvious lists of prohibited designs. Repeated requests from TechNewsDaily yielded no clear answers either. In fact, only one company had any answers at all.
MakerBot, the sole respondent, doesn’t print items for consumers, but it does sell 3-D printers online and at MakerBot stores in New York City. It also hosts an online forum called Thingiverse, where makers share designs with each other. MakerBot spokeswoman Jenifer Howard sent the following message: "Our Acceptable Use Policy in section 3.3 of the Terms describes use of the Site 'to collect, upload, transmit, display or distribute any User Content... (ii) that...promotes illegal activities or contributes to the creation of weapons...' as a violation." The “illegal activities” were not further defined, again despite our multiple requests for clarification.
Shapeways spokeswoman Elisa Richardson has previously acknowledged to TechNewsDaily (in an inquiry about counterfeiting) that her company couldn’t check every user-submitted design. But she did specify that guns are prohibited. Thingiverse alone hosts some 80,000 user-uploaded designs, with more coming in every day. All this raises the question: How carefully can companies monitor for the production of gun parts or other weapons?
There are plastic gun replicas already in the mix, like the DC17 Animated Clone Trooper Blaster Prop on Thingiverse. And home printers are coming down in price. At Solidoodle,you can pick up a 3-D printer for $499. The basic materials are changing as well. Currently, home 3-D printers produce items made of plastic, but commercial printers can handle gold, silver and stainless steel. As the list of potential materials grows, prices will fall and options expand. But the potential threat already exists.
Defense Distributed’s Liberator plastic pistol uses just one metal piece, a piece that’s not necessary, but was included to make it visible to metal detectors in order to avoid violating federal law. That law — the Undetectable Firearms Act — is set to expire at the end of this year.
All this puts manufacturers of 3-D-printed materials in a gray area from a legal standpoint. Questions arise — could 3-D printers and print manufacturers be bound to turn suspicious customers over to authorities? And what are the liability repercussions if, say, a car component is manufactured and then fails? When you consider that smokers have successfully sued tobacco companies, these questions don’t seem so far-fetched.
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