3D printing could extend lifetime of products

Out-Law News | 22 Oct 2020 | 10:32 am | 3 min. read

Manufacturers could reduce their contribution to environmental waste and extend the lifetime of their products to the benefit of consumers by embracing 3D printing, but they would need to carefully monitor the potential impact this could have on product safety, legal experts have said.

Andrew Masterson and Sophia Hytiris of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, welcomed the publication of a new report on 3D printing of spare parts for consumer appliances by the UK's Office for Product and Safety Standards (OPSS) but warned of potential implications for product safety should 3D printing of spare parts by consumers grow in prominence.

"This report is very interesting in that it addresses the challenges posed to consumers by the 3D printing of spare parts," Hytiris said. "The OPSS has, for some time, acknowledged the benefits and utility of 3D-printed spare parts to consumers. The OPSS previously told Pinsent Masons that 3D printing would be a priority area in 2021, so it comes as welcome news that the OPSS has finalised its report."

Masterson said: "Rather than consumer products becoming obsolete and discarded, the availability of 3D spare parts that consumers could print off themselves when required has the potential to extend the lifetime of those products, potentially indefinitely. At a time when policy makers and regulators around the world are driving a 'green agenda' this potential to reduce the number of items going to landfill is to be welcomed, and could potentially be further tied into a broader reuse and recycling of materials by industry."

"However, it does mean that old, superseded and possibly less safe products would remain in use far beyond their original expected life span, raising possible future and difficult-to-quantify risk aspects," he said.

In its report, the OPSS highlighted the advantages of using 3D printing to make spare parts for consumer appliances, citing "cost savings, time savings, and the flexibility to print remotely and on-demand" as examples. It acknowledged, however, that some stakeholders believe spare parts must be "produced by reputable and qualified manufacturers".

The report also identified gaps in existing consumer laws relevant to 3D printing.

"Generally, stakeholders have obligations under existing statute or common law to ensure the safety of the products they manufacture and/or supply, either under the law on product safety or under sales rules concerning the quality of product that can be lawfully supplied," the OPSS said. "There are, however, areas where the application of law is not particularly clear due to a lack of express provisions in the relevant legislation."

"For example, the legal obligations of the supplier of the design component file of unauthorised 3D printed parts are not as clear as those who supply goods or services. This is because of a lack of clarity in law as to whether digital content (i.e. data which is not supplied in a physical medium, such as software) is a 'product', 'good' or 'service'," it said.

The OPSS also said that its review had found further issues concerning suppliers' obligations in the context of 3D printing of spare parts for consumer goods.

It said: "Suppliers' obligations are typically limited to making the supply of what has been ordered in accordance with the agreed form (whether stated expressly or implied by operation of law) subject to general quality and safety legal requirements as applicable. There is no obligation for a supplier actively to seek information such as the purpose for which the 3D printed part has been ordered or on which consumer appliance it is intended to be installed. Supply of an unauthorised 3D printed part which has no inherent quality or safety defect, and without knowledge on the part of the supplier as to its intended or foreseeable use, would not necessarily make the supplier in breach of applicable sales-related regulations or liable for any negative consequences of such part being used with a particular consumer appliance or category of consumer appliance."

The report set out examples of companies which either directly provide or signpost consumers to platforms that offer ease of access to printing of 3D spare parts. One example cited was Hoover's collaboration with Thingiverse, an online 3D printing community, which enables consumers to directly print custom vacuum parts.

Hytiris said: "The 3D printing of spare parts by consumers is expected to increase in popularity. Whilst this presents a number of advantages for consumers, this also heightens the safety issues presented by the 3D printing of spare parts to consumers. It is hoped that sector-specific legislation may be forthcoming to address the unique and challenging safety concerns posed by the 3D printing of spare parts – especially for parts to be used in sensitive product types such as consumer electricals or parts for use on equipment used with children."