3D printing needs rapid attention of EU Commission

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

3D printing is reshaping some of the foundations of today’s society and economy. A report by Netopia shows the opportunities are monumental, but so are the legal and regulatory challenges on product safety, consumer protection or even international trade tariffs and value added taxes, writes Per Strömbäck.

Per Strömbäck is the editor of the online magazine and ideas forum on the digital sphere, Netopia.

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing as it is also called, has been a functioning technology for the last thirty years. As patents filed in the 80’s are progressively expiring, many new models and devices are expected to appear the coming months and years. We are witnessing a paradigm shift that follows a familiar pattern of lower prices, simpler design, cheaper raw materials and increased volumes.

3D printers could stand before a similar trajectory as photo printers did in the 1990’s, with fast growth in affordable printers for home-use and specialized services like local 3D print houses. However, where photo printers ‘only’ challenged the business of traditional photo development labs, it is almost easier to define what will not be affected by 3D printers.

3D printed replicas of fire-arms are improved by the day and make regular news stories in the media. But that is only the tip of the ice berg. Already today, 3D printers can produce for example concrete buildings, human organs, sugar candy, metal spare part to cars and functioning prostheses. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the vast opportunities, but it shouldn’t divert attention from the challenges that accompany it.

Netopia recently publishes the report 3D Printing – Technology and Beyond. The report gives an overview of the technology and the challenges it poses to current legal rules and regulations. There are obvious issues related to consumer protection and product safety. Who is responsible if someone is injured by a 3D printed product? The designer? The owner of the printer? The maker of the printer? The trademark system is to a large extent a consumer protection system, but widespread personal 3D printing challenges its current structures and functions. We can also expect a  rise in intellectual property infringements for a vast new group of industries.

The development should be a call for action for policy makers, but as it appears it has barely entered the radar screen of the EU Commission. History shows that short-sightedness when it comes to policy making and technological advances can have significant consequences.

When the e-commerce directive was negotiated at the very end of the last century, most Europeans were using dial-up to connect to the Internet. In the negotiations of the directive, internet intermediaries were granted substantial liability privileges based on the then current technology and Internet use – a far cry from today’s provider desiderata around the possibilities of technology, from traffic management, priority services, to automated curation. Only a couple of months after the directive was adopted, ADSL broadband reached mass markets in many EU countries and with it, Napster, later convicted for organizing mass copyright infringement. Technology had outrun legislation on Internet time.

The EU Commission and its president José Manuel Barroso must avoid trailing too far behind the 3D printer development. We might be standing on the brink of a manufacturing revolution. Now is the time to make sure it will work in the best of our interests.

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