Additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing (3DP), offers exciting possibilities that will impact any number of industries. In the legal field, much of the focus remains on product liability and intellectual property issues, such as patent and copyright law. However, as with any new technology, many of the rules affecting the 3DP industry will be decided in Congress and administrative agencies rather than in courtrooms.

As yet, 3DP remains largely unregulated absent a few exceptions such as firearms. As the technology becomes more mainstream, however, manufacturers and users of 3DP would be foolish to assume the trend will continue. Adding to the potential complexity is that a technology capable of creating anything from body parts to food to automobiles is likely to come under the jurisdiction of a large number of Congressional committees and administrative agencies. Additionally, the IP issues that many lawyers within the industry focus on could just as easily be decided within Congress as within the courts.

The complexity surrounding future rules and regulations within the 3DP industry becomes further magnified when we consider that various countries will regulate the industry in different ways. Individual U.S. states may also attempt to regulate aspects of the industry until and unless Congress or an agency intervenes and preempts them. The future of 3DP could easily become mired in a mess of conflicting laws and even trade disputes.

The aforementioned discussion is not meant to alarm those within the 3DP industry, but rather to encourage them to be proactive. The manufacturers and users of 3DP technology will undoubtedly want a say in the rules that govern the industry. Thus, an experienced government relations team could prove an invaluable partner, not only for tracking legislative and regulatory developments, but for influencing them.

Important steps for those within the industry include briefing Members of Congress and their staffs (many of whom likely know very little about 3DP), tracking new legislative and regulatory developments, opposing harmful laws or regulations, and suggesting and promoting rules that would help grow and expand the industry. Furthermore, stakeholders in the industry should not wait until a harmful law or regulation is proposed before getting engaged, since by that time it is often too late.

Additionally, as 3DP becomes more popular, we can expect a negative economic impact to some industries, as happens with any revolutionary new technology. Industries with strong government relations teams already in place could be in a position to influence the regulatory climate in ways that will harm the 3DP industry. An ongoing example of this type of behavior has been the debate over Internet sales tax legislation.