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Insuring 3D Printing, An Industry About to Expand?

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mojo-3d-printer-2Insurance companies are beginning to realize that there is something to additive manufacturing. It’s all tied up in something that insurers call “risk,” meaning the potential for the loss of something of value as weighed against the value gained. These are not abstract moral questions about risk in the colloquial usage of the term, such as: what are the risks to society caused when 3D printed guns can be produced and distributed? Instead, these are concrete questions about responsibility and, ultimately, money.

Zurich Insurance has recently begun a thorough investigation of the insurance risks associated with additive manufacturing. The aspects of 3D printing that are currently on their investigative radar revolve around issues of design and intellectual property, raw material quality, untested material combinations, product and employee liability risks, and jurisdiction for products that are distributed across borders.

The technologies have been available for decades. So, why this interest in 3D now?  The telling piece is at the end of Zurich’s discussion of the possible dangers:

“Earlier this year, Zurich published ‘SMEs and Risk in 2020,’ looking at new technologies that UK small businesses might be using in 2020, and this predicted that ‘one of the biggest potential growth areas is additive manufacturing or ‘3D printing,’ due to its almost unlimited design possibilities and lack of waste.’ Mass take-up may be here sooner than we think.”

In other words, they have realized that this is something that is going to be common enough that determining the dangers associated with it and the ways in which those dangers can be processed through insurance will become profitable. Insurance is a business, so it’s no surprise that they would become involved when it becomes profitable – this is not an accusation of immorality. After all, it was largely as a result of insurance lobbying that fire codes were strengthened after the Coconut Grove nightclub burned down in 1942 killing 492 people and insurers had to pay millions. Effects to an insurer’s bottom line is often a catalyst for beneficial change.

thing-o-matic_product_800What is clear, from reading Zurich’s statement, is that they have sensed the growth of this industry and are interested in making an initial foray. What is not clear is if the insurance industry views 3D printing as having any particularly strong risks that might require their services. At this point, it seems more that they are speculating on what could go wrong and will need a great deal of further expertise and investigation to fully understand the insurance products that could be designed for additive manufacturing.

Currently, Zurich imagines the risk scenarios to include things such as accidental injury or damage caused by 3D printed products, recall insurance (when a product has to be pulled off the market due to design faults), and respiratory issues for employees dealing with the powder used in printing. The issue this raises is: aren’t there already insurance products in place that deal with those issues regardless of whether they are related to 3D printing or not? Product liability and worker’s comp, for example, are currently existing insurance products that address some of the issues that Zurich raises. Is there anything truly different about 3D printing from other manufacturing processes that will require entirely new insurance policies or is it simply a matter of expanding already existing insurance? At this point, Zurich is simply in the investigation phase and no specific answers have yet been provided.

I can’t help but come away from Zurich’s statement with the feeling that they are capable of finding danger lurking wherever they turn their gaze. The question then becomes will the push by insurance for entry into the 3D printing market provide a benefit through the expansion of existing insurance products to cover a wider variety of situations, some specific to 3D printing, or will it simply increase operating costs, result in a restriction of the democracy of production that 3D printing has granted, and create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion. Let’s hear your thoughts on this article in the 3D printing & Insurance forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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