The Democratization of 3d Printing: Joys and Sorrows
A fascinating technology is becoming more and more widespread and may completely change the world of manufacturing as we know it: 3D printing. An object passed through a 3D scanner or a file downloaded through the internet may enable almost anybody to produce an unlimited number of 3D copies.
This is a classic example of an innovative technology that is going through the process of “democratization”: with the price of 3D printers now in the range of tens of thousands of Euros, a manufacturing method, which was once available only to a few, may now be found in every architecture firm, in your garage and… in your hospital.
A beautiful National Geographic title points to the revolutionary aspects of 3D printing: “As epoch-making as Gutenberg’s printing press, 3-D printing is changing the shape of the future.” As in many other “revolutions”, it is difficult to imagine its full potential at its onset. Therefore, 3D printing sparks both enthusiasm and anxiety. Many intellectual property owners have much to fear from the possibility of producing countless unauthorized copies of products looking exactly like theirs. While the music and movie industries already suffered when home taping or file sharing became commonplace, 3D printing may impact nearly all industries. Others point to the risks connected with the complete lack of control over the production of guns or other dangerous objects (with others questioning how serious of a threat this might be).
3D printing is already vastly used in the field of medical practice, and many more uses can be imagined in the future (printing organs for transplants is no longer an entirely futuristic scenario). Recent research on 3D programs deployed in Italian hospitals point to the advantages related to 3D models of patients for pre-surgery planning, for training, as well as for obtaining the patient’s informed consent. None of such uses are likely to trigger legal or regulatory issues, if data protection aspects are correctly handled.
Is 3d Printing a Regulated Activity? Is a 3d Printed Item a Regulated Object?
If, instead, a 3D object is created and used closer to patients, it is possible that a regulated item is obtained (most likely a medical device or an advance therapy medicinal product), or that a regulated activity is carried out, with a host of regulatory consequences. In fact:
- medical devices are regulated under Directive 93/42/EEC, as implemented in various Member States (Legislative Decree no. 46/1997 as to Italy), and note that a 3D printed item cannot fit the definition of custom made device, which is less heavily regulated, since it is not aimed at an individual patient;
- advance therapy medicinal products are subject to EC Regulation 1394/2007;
- processing of human tissues and cells is subject to Directive 2004/23/EC implemented in Italy through Legislative Decree 191/2007;
- 3D manufacturing can also be deemed as a working activity, thus triggering safety on the workplace obligations (mainly set out in Legislative Decree 81/2008 in Italy).
3d Printing and Liabilities
Who is responsible if a 3D printed medical object is defective? The process of 3D printing involves a number of potentially responsible individuals, who may be liable, in full or in part. A Court would have to determine what went wrong. Depending on the circumstances, the doctor prescribing the 3D object, the surgeon implanting it, the radiologist choosing the images on which the 3D printing process is based, the manufacturers of the 3D printer or of the materials used, the user of a 3D printer… each of them may be responsible for the defect.
However, this is not a new scenario in medical technology, where product liability is always potentially connected with medical malpractice and where finding out the exact responsibility of each subject can be challenging. Italian law sets forth joint liability of all responsible persons and indicates that the person who paid damages has recourse against the other liable persons on the basis of risks, faults and consequences. If such allocation of liability is not possible, then each person is liable in equal parts.
There is often a general sense that an innovative technology is so new that it happens in a legislative vacuum, because how could the legislator have already foreseen rules specific to 3D printing? We have written about a similar approach in the field of medical apps. Instead, new technologies typically land on a pre-existing landscape of applicable regulations, which should be taken into account by innovators and users of innovation. Regulatory authorities may not be ready to start enforcement actions against 3D printing, but may decide to do so in the future.