3D-Printing: Three Dimensional Dangers of CAD Files

By: Andrea Hageman
Although the concept of 3D printing has existed since 1981[1], it wasn’t until 2009 when a 3D printer first became commercially[2] available that the technology began to slowly become more accessible, even though they were still $10,000[3] a pop. Since then, the 3D printing movement has only gained more traction as they become more accessible[4]. As accessibility increases so have speculations about their potential uses. The obvious appeal is the ability to print anything you want and become one’s own personal manufacturer. However, a recent federal case has recently brought to light that this kind of technology has as much potential to be dangerous as it has to be convenient.
3D printers work by turning a computer aided design, or CAD file and converting the data into a series of two-dimension layers and printing those layers on top of each other[5]. In short, similar to downloading a word document to print, a user downloads CAD files to print an item. In essence, this allows a person to share an item to multiple people just by sending a simple
file. This is exactly what Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed, did in December 2012[6] when he designed and released a CAD file of a plastic gun,[7] until he was and was told to remove the file[8]. In May 2015 Wilson sued the federal government alleging that the government in requiring him to remove the CAD file of the plastic gun violated his right to free speech and to bear arms and seeking an injunction to stop the government from requiring any pre-publication approval of Defense Distributed files so that they and others would be free to publish these and similar CAD files without governmental intervention.[9] The Court denied Wilsons’s motion for the injunction to stop the federal governments regulatory enforcements, reasoning that that by publishing the files Defense Distributed by facilitating access to the product of weapons would increase the type of global conflicts the government is empowered to regulate[10]. However, years later the controversy over 3D printed guns has only increased.
The regulations Wilson challenged in 2015 were recently scaled back by an agreement between the government and Defense Distributed which would allow the company and others to be able to publish CAD files of guns and other weapons.[11] In response however, Washington DC as well as eight other states filed their own lawsuit to invalidate the agreement between Defense Distributed and the federal government in order to stop the company from being able publish the weapons again[12]. This lawsuit has brought the potentially dangerous implications of 3D printing back into the public eye. Although the court granted the states’ motion, holding that they have sufficiently proven that the likelihood of injury due to the publishing of the CAD weapons is high and therefore warrants at least the temporary staying of the agreement[13], the once bright future of 3D printing is now dimmed by practical considerations of what the technology means not only for the way we live our lives but also by what kinds of regulatory reforms would be necessary to combat the dangers that come with people being able to print anything with the click of a button.
Although a preliminary injunction has been granted[14], therefore stopping Defense Distributed from being able to publish these files, the larger issue still stands: if 3D printing continues to become more accessible, will its social utility outweigh its potential dangers and if so, what if any regulations may the federal government place on the types of files people share and create in order to counteract these dangers? The more accessible this type of technology is, the easier it becomes for people to use it to get around the sorts of protects and regulations already in place, necessarily requiring that our protections evolve with technology. However what kinds of evolution with be sufficient as well as constitutional still remains to be seen. No doubt cases similar to this one will continue to pose this question as CAD files of weapons serve as a solemn reminder that being able to printer anything means being able to print anything.
  1. See generally Dana Goldberg, History of 3D Printing: It’s Older Than You Are (That Is, If You’re Under 30), Redshift by Autodesk (Apr. 13, 2018), https://www.autodesk.com/redshift/history-of-3d-printing/.
  2. See generally The Free Beginners Guide, 3D Printing Industry, https://3dprintingindustry.com/3d-printing-basics-free-beginners-guide#02-history.
  3. Id.
  4. See generally Hannah Bensoussan, The History of 3D Printing: 3D Printing Technologies from the 80s to Today, Sculpteo (Dec 14, 2016), https://www.sculpteo.com/blog/2016/12/14/the-history-of-3d-printing-3d-printing-technologies-from-the-80s-to-today.
  5. Chris Woodford, 3D Printers, Explain that Stuff! (Aug 4, 2018), https://www.explainthatstuff.com/how-3d-printers-work.html.
  6. See generally Defense Distributed v. United States Dep’t of State, 121 F. Supp. 3d 680, 687 (W.D. Tex. 2015).
  7. Megan Redman, Jessica Hopper, Knez Walker and Alexa Valiente, Entrepreneur behind fight for sharing 3D printed gun blueprints on why he’s advocating for ‘the people’s right to keep and bear arms, ABC News (Aug 9,2018), https://abcnews.go.com/US/man-fight-sharing-printed-gun-blueprints-hes-advocating/story?id=57117087.
  8. Washington v. United States Dep’t of State, 315 F. Supp. 3d 1202, 1204 (W.D. Wash. 2018).
  9. Id. at 1203.
  10. Id. at 1205.
  11. Id.
  12. Id.
  13. Id.
  14. David Sherfinski, Federal Judge Grants Preliminary Injunction in 3-D Printed Gun Case, The Washington Times (Aug 27, 2018), https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/aug/27/judge-grants-injunction-3d-printed-gun-case/.

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