3D printing: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer


The praises of 3D printing are being sung from on high. This 30-year-old technology is rapidly evolving in both the materials science and equipment capabilities arenas.  Rapid learning cycles and manufacturer of parts that couldn’t be made using traditional methodologies are part and parcel of the industry today.

Ah, but of course. Where there’s money, there is theft.  Easy, inexpensive availability of common materials, desktop printers and drawing files means the kid down the street or the unethical operation on the other side of the world can create counterfeits of your products or service parts undetected. You stand to lose revenue and gain liability.

I would never shout “fire” without showing you the exits and telling you how to prevent it from spreading.  Five actions you should consider now:

  1. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, requires a strategy for controlling outsourcing, service parts, warranty and IP protection. “Strategy” means proactive, not reactive.
  2. Design important parts to include built-in IP controls to complicate unauthorized 3-D printing.  This likely adds costs, but consider it similar to insurance.
  3. The tendency to trust is admirable, but it can be costly.  There are many holes in the dike, often created under “being more efficient.”  Plug the obvious digital file leaks first, and use technology as your friend. If you wouldn’t email your social security number, don’t email digital parts files. Enabling suppliers to share those files is inviting fraud. Looking for multiple quotes?  Distributing files to uncontrolled strangers is akin to posting on Facebook. I hate legal agreements as much as the next guy, but Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) with everyone who accesses a file is prudent.
  4. Make sure your customers are aware of the risks of 3D counterfeit parts and what you are doing to limit their risk.  Your best customers want fast authentic service parts. Consider creating controlled additive manufacturing capability near remote customer enclaves if your normal service part delivery lead-time cracks open the door to “but we need it now!”
  5. Warranting performance is part of the manufacturing business. Ensuring means to support product you made and sold and avoiding liability for illicit 3D printed substitutes may not be easy, but is basic risk management now.

Illegitimate use of 3-D printing will make identity theft seem scarce and benign by comparison.  There’s no credit card company limiting your losses, and the number of parties disinterested in your sad story is even greater.  You may not use 3D printing, but others are becoming very good at it.  Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

As published in AME’s Target Online