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3D printing in construction

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July 30, 2021

The application of 3D printing in Australasian construction is in it’s early stages and offers many advantages. What are the insurance implications?

Construction is a key industry looking to take advantage of 3D printing (3DP) technology which could lower the cost of building materials, reduce production times and allow architects to push the design envelope by using new shapes and forms.

While the first 3D printers appeared in the 1980s, the technology is still in very early stages in terms of its application to construction in Australia and New Zealand. Further, concerns regarding the adequacy of 3DP materials in the industry will need to be addressed before they become mainstream. This would be facilitated by introduction of Standards to govern how 3DP is used to ensure that the strength and durability of the structure can be verified.

So, are 3DP components in construction considered as being prototypical or untried and untested? The most immediate impact of 3DP on construction is in the production of small consumer products for installation in the fit-out stage of buildings including various polymers, metals and alloys, ceramics and other materials (such as wax, metal foil, paper). However, these fittings carry inherent risks from an insurance perspective.

Insurance implications

Products liability

Because 3DP is currently unregulated, product design and manufacturing may become blurred in terms of liability cover. However, the extent to which the law considers electronic files to be “products” for product liability purposes and the increasingly cloudy determination of who is the “manufacturer” of a product are important issues to monitor closely.

The “manufacturer” is of particular interest to insurers. If the product is 3D printed and sold by an established manufacturing entity, it may be subject to traditional product liability analyses. However, 3DP gives rise to scenarios where a product may be designed by one party, scanned and digitised into a CAD file by another, sold for downloading by another, and ultimately “printed” by the end user or a printing service provider.

Identifying all participants in a product’s “manufacturing”, tracing the respective role and contribution of each, and imposing accountability, among other things, all present challenges in determining and apportioning any product liability.

Professional risk and intellectual property

Digitisation enables 3D printing, but it also facilitates dissemination and, potentially, unauthorised copying and trademark breaches.

As scanning technologies improve, the ability to digitise virtually anything will strain intellectual property protections and increase liability risks from infringement and unauthorised design modifications.

How can we help?

Willis Towers Watson prides itself on understanding our construction clients’ businesses. To assess any additional or new loss exposures from the use of 3DP, we will need to discuss and understand:

  • The nature and extent of your reliance on existing and potential use of 3D printing
  • If you have a risk assessment plan for Intellectual Property infringement
  • What materials are being used in your 3D printed products (e.g., thermoplastics, polymers)
  • Who are your sources for those materials? Who is the designer of the product?
  • How have liability exposures been addressed contractually with your 3DP suppliers?
Contact

Daryl Robinson
National Manager, Construction New Zealand

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