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3D printing: The layers of risk

We continue our series exploring emerging risks and their potential impact on property/casualty insurers with an in-depth look at the complex issues raised by 3D printing. Be sure to also read the other articles in the series. You'll learn about the potential risks posed by two other quickly emerging trends: the increasingly popular e-cigarette (also called vapes) and marijuana legalization.

Creating new world of risk, potential liability

3D printing technology makes inkjets seem quaint. Also known as "additive manufacturing," the technology can "print" physical objects—everything from customized prostheses to bridges to food. 3D printing has created a new world of manufacturing opportunities. It's also creating a new world of risk and potential liability issues for insurers.

3D printers in a Chicago classroom
3D printers in a Chicago classroom. ©2015 Nick Fochtman/Nicholas James Photo.

While it may seem complicated, in principle 3D printing is relatively straightforward. The process essentially involves feeding 2D digital blueprints into the printer, which successively adds materials layer by layer to create a 3D object.

3D printing is more than just a new technology. It has the potential to change how we work and live and to influence the risks we face every day.

Occupational health and safety risks

The American Society for Testing and Materials puts additive manufacturing processes in seven categories. One category, vat photo polymerization, uses some form of liquid polymer resin and an ultraviolet laser guided by the digital blueprint to trace a cross-section of the item being printed onto the surface of the liquid.

The ultraviolet light cures and solidifies the pattern on the resin and joins it to the layer below. Other processes use plastic, glass, ceramics, metals, or powder materials for printing.

3D printing could potentially create new hazards, affecting issues such as product liability and occupational health and safety.

  • The digital blueprint itself represents one risk exposure. Defects, whether from human error or deliberate tampering, can be encoded into the blueprint. In an actual demonstration of this risk, defects were reportedly introduced in the blueprints for a drone propeller blade. As a result, the drone using the faulty blade crashed.
  • The materials being printed could pose another risk exposure. Some materials may be rendered toxic upon printing. Others, such as metal and powder materials, may release harmful particles that could sicken people when not properly ventilated.
  • The potential for widespread manufacturing dispersal could raise counterfeiting and quality control concerns, as well as other safety and liability issues. Consider the potential difficulties in tracing a product's origin in a world of cheap, accessible, and widely available 3D printing.

Companies face supply chain risks

Companies may also be at risk of manufacturing, distributing, or selling products that contain defective or unsafe 3D printed parts obtained through their supply chains, even though a company is not using 3D printing in its own operations.

3D printing is more than just a new technology. It has the potential to change how we work and live and to influence the risks we face every day. With 3D printing come health exposures, security risks, intellectual property concerns, and fears of potential market dislocation. It's not clear what issues may emerge next, but in the case of 3D printing, the dimensions of the risks are taking shape a layer at a time.

Read the next article in the Emerging Risk series: E-cigarettes: Up in vapor

William P. Mauro

William P. Mauro is vice president and head of coverage for commercial lines at Verisk. He can be reached at

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