3D Printing Gives Hackers Entirely New Ways to Wreak Havoc


3D printing is on the verge of mainstream adoption, which will mean a fundamental shift in manufacturing. The driving force is not improvements to the technology, although those are also important, but rather a transformation in the industry’s business model.

For the last decade, the 3D printing sector has been dominated by closed systems, in which 3D printers could only be used with the manufacturer’s resin and software. The trouble with closed systems is that they limit innovation. One printer manufacturer alone cannot offer the variety of materials needed for the thousands of potential 3D printing applications. As a result, the development of new end-user applications and materials has stalled, and growth in 3D printing has plateaued. To break out, the industry must reinvent itself and become open.

There has been progress in that direction. Players from adjacent industries have recently started to move into the sector. They have tended to bring a more open approach.

Consider HP. It has recently entered the world of 3D printing, but it has done so through an open platform. Rather than having a proprietary closed system with its own materials, HP is open to third-party material development. It is offering a 3D printing industry materials development kit (MDK). This is like a software development kit in open platforms for new apps, such as the Apple Store. The MDK enables companies interested in certifying their materials to quickly test the compatibility of 3D powders with HP Jet Fusion 3D printers before submitting them to HP for certification. Other pure digital players like Autodesk are also pushing for an open approach.

Shifting from a closed system to an open one has many advantages. Open systems tend to be more innovative, and we expect to see more material innovation and applications for 3D printing in the future. But open systems also have some drawbacks. The most glaring one is cybersecurity. Once introduced into an open environment, a virus can spread faster through multiple parties and flows of information than in a closed system.

Hackers can and do already cause significant digital damage in the form of computer crashes, data loss, the shutdown of websites and servers, and the interruption of important services, among other things. With 3D printing, however, the threats move into the physical world.

As 3D-printed objects have both a digital and a physical representation, the complexity and the risks are commensurately greater. A corrupt file can result in product failures, which can lead to injuries, litigation, or product recalls. While the effects of stolen credit card information, for example, can be quickly identified and corrected, this may not be the case with a corrupt 3D object that works in a mechanical system. Effects created from a hacked file may not materialize until some point in the future, and when they do, it may be in an entirely unpredictable manner.

For example, in a recent study, New York University researchers examined two aspects of 3D printing with cybersecurity implications: printing orientation and insertion of fine defects. These tiny errors inducted by hackers could not be detected by normal monitoring and verification systems like ultrasonic imaging.

If it is not properly addressed, the cybersecurity threat may well hinder the development of an open 3D printing ecosystem based on platform business models. If users are afraid of potential security issues, they will be reluctant to use the platform. One visible accident, and the industry will pull back.

The cybersecurity risk to 3D printing’s future is significant. Candidates to become the future platform leaders need to act as guarantors of the quality and integrity of files and data and ensure proper certification and monitoring, up to the physical object verification. Cybersecurity will have to bridge from digital to physical and find efficient ways to scale verification of the physical objects one by one, particularly for the 3D-printed parts that play an essential role in manufacturing or health care systems.

The originality and power of 3D printing lies in its existence in the digital and physical worlds. Herein lies both the threat and the opportunity.