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3D Printing Has a Bright Future With Dark Problems

DIY gunsmithing is just one potential issue 3D printer companies must decide how to handle. But there are many more risks on the horizon.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., many organizations have felt compelled to react, to do something. Among those is MakerBot. The 3D printer company announced recently that it would no longer host plans for a key assault rifle part on its Thingiverse website, which lets users upload files to make virtually anything with one of the company's devices.

The use of 3D printing in business has enormous possibilities, whether in manufacturing shoe parts or creating parts of the Iron Man costume for a movie. But companies in the 3D space are learning an old lesson: New technology brings along new problems and issues.

MakerBot isn't the first 3D printing company to come up against the possibility of DIY gunsmithing. As recently as October 2012, commercial 3D printer company Stratasys clashed with an online group that wanted to build its own guns. When it learned of the project, the company cancelled the lease and picked up the printer.

It was only early in 2012 that MakerBot took on the consumer market. But in February, the company had added terms prohibiting the uploading of weapons-related files to its site, according to CNET.

MakerBot told CNET the reason was that the file violated the website's terms of service. And yet, the publication had asked the company about this particular issue back in August. MakerBot admitted that it always had the choice to remove the gun part, but had not previously exercised it.

Often, businesses want to officially cover themselves against potential legal problems. But espousing a stance without doing anything only postpones a problem and does not solve it. And when you're in the business of enabling people to easily make things, you have plenty of potential problems facing you.

Forget weapons, for a moment. A PR firm recently touted someone's contention that 3D printers could let people reproduce copyrighted designs. Yes, I know, it sounds like a law firm looking for a new line of work, but the possibility is actually there. Not only could 3D printer companies face potential pressure from major brands, but those brands will now have to expand their anti-infringement activities beyond looking for factories that make knock-offs.

At what point does a 3D printer manufacturer or service firm face liability because a consumer makes a product or part that breaks under use, possibly causing injury or damage?

The future of 3D printing is still bright, but there are some dark clouds on the horizon, and entrepreneurs in the space will have to deal with them.

Last updated: Dec 21, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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