image: adidas image: adidas

Adidas made headlines in December 2015 when it released an interesting new shoe, one that utilized reclaimed plastic gill nets, other ocean plastic waste, and additive manufacturing – or what is better known as 3D printing – to create a sneaker aimed at forcing the industry to “rethink design and help stop ocean plastic pollution.” The German sportswear giant has been toying with 3D printing as a manufacturing method for a while now, and this spring, introduced its latest creation: The Futurecraft 4D.

In partnership with Silicon Valley-based Carbon – a company financed by funds set up by Google and General Electric, adidas says the new Futurecraft sneaker has been developed using Continuous Liquid Interface Production, a process that is both faster and more adaptable than traditional additive printing – which was used to manufacture the earlier model produced in partnership with Parley for the Oceans. According to adidas, the newer process stands to make mass-production 3D printing a reality.

While the adidas sneakers and the Continuous Liquid Interface Production process are novel developments within the fashion industry, 3D printing – the utilization of various processes to synthesize a three-dimensional object – has been a growing focus in the legal field for a while now. Much of the focus remains on product liability and intellectual property (“IP”) issues, as due to the very nature of additive manufacturing, users and makers of 3D printers will inevitably encounter issues involving their own patents, trademarks, trade dress, trade secrets, and copyrights, and those of others.

However, as with any new technology, many of the rules affecting the 3D printing industry will be decided in Congress and administrative agencies rather than in courtrooms.

To date, 3D printing has been a largely unregulated practice, save for a few exceptions, such as when it involves guns or pharmaceuticals. However, as the technology becomes more mainstream, this is likely to change quite significantly, with regulation becoming far more expansive.

In fact, given the wide array of the possibilities associated with 3D printing, which range the creation of sneakers to the possibility to 3D printing food – such as gummy bears – and pharmaceuticals, this practice will certainly fall under the jurisdiction of a large number of Congressional committees and administrative agencies, including but not limited to the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, among many others. International law doctrines and trade agreements will almost certainly come into play, as well.

Intellectual property law is one of the most commonly cited sects of law in connection with the rise of 3d printing, as anyone who owns rights in product designs stands to be be affected by the capabilities of this technology. The Gartner Group, an American research and advisory firm providing information technology related insight, predicts that “by 2018, 3D printing will result in the loss of at least $100 billion per year in intellectual property globally.” As such, existing IP legislation will need to interpreted by courts in terms of how it applies in connection with 3D printing.

But what about government regulators, who will also likely be challenged. According to IP Watch: Food and Drug Administration regulators will be faced with approving countless 3D printed medical devices, drugs, and human organs. In the US, doctors who 3D printed the trachea splints that saved several newborn babies sought and obtained emergency clearances from the US Food and Drug Administration.

Aircraft regulators will face similar issues with 3D printed aircraft parts. Consumer products regulators will grapple with the safety of products made by way of 3D printing – some of which may be made at Amazon as we speak (the e-commerce giant launched a 3D printing platform in 2014). And using 3D printing for new kinds of crime will challenge the law enforcement, investigation, intelligence, military, national security, and criminal justice systems, and inter-country relations, and lead to calls for new laws to address these challenges.