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Are 3D Printers a Cybersecurity Risk? Everything You Should Know

3D Printers a Cybersecurity Risk
Above: 3D printing has risks associated with cybersecurity/Image Source: Security Magazine

3D printing cybersecurity risks are a reality today. As 3D printing penetrates global manufacturing industries at various levels of production (ideation and prototyping to end-use manufacturing and research), its significance only grow by the day. While 3D printing delivers a seamless and automated manufacturing process to create unprecedented design complexities, the humble 3D printer is also susceptible cyber hacking risks.

We answer the burning question – Are 3D printers a cybersecurity risk? Why they are vulnerable, what are the potential risks and how to assuage them?

Why are 3D Printers at Risk?

Internet connection

Individuals, local entrepreneurs or smaller businesses operating 3D printers at home or their office premise operate 3D printing through multiple free software applications. Most are pirated or free versions and such applications are open-sourced, which means it is not the most secured form of protection. These are highly susceptible to hacking attacks. While it can be argued that it doesn’t make much sense hack hobbyists or smaller businesses but still it is a possibility. Most of the local businesses do share proprietary files to local 3D printing service providers over the internet and such files are vulnerable to be hacked and designs can be leaked.

Internet connectivity is required for many applications like the design or clean-up software, file preparation, printer control through host software, print scheduling, remote monitoring, etc.

Manufacturing-as-a-Service (MaaS)

Manufacturing-as-a-Service (MaaS)
Above: Hubs instant 3D printing quotation engine/Image Source: Hubs (formerly 3D Hubs)

Many larger organization offer digital manufacturing service also popularly known as MaaS – Manufacturing-as-a-Service. Such services are offered to customers via the internet. The user simply has to upload his design to the service provider website and the rest is taken care of by the service provider. Powerful quotation engines are then used to determine the time and cost required to print the model.

Initially when the quotation engines were new, they were only developed by a select few larger companies that could be relied upon for maintaining cybersecurity but today these engines are widely available and can be incorporated by smaller organisations who may not have the necessary infrastructure to block hacking attacks.

What are the 3D Printing Cybersecurity Risks?

3D Printing Cybersecurity Risks
Above: An FFF 3D printer in action/Image Source: HP Inc.

Today, 3D printing has permeated a wide range of industries, and each industry has proprietary assets that it wishes to protect in order to safeguard its business from competition. If not properly secured, conceptual or test prototypes, new product designs, patented designs, end-use products, and so on from a variety of critical industries will be vulnerable to cyber-attacks, making this the next frontier for hackers. 3D printing cybersecurity risks are one of the most important risks facing the industry today.

1. Risk of Intellectual Property (IP)

Every profitable business expands by developing products that provide a better solution to an existing problem. Every company’s foundation is built on constant evolution and product development. And the efficiency of this very aspect of an organisation gives the organisation a competitive advantage.

However, the central idea of delivering better products every time is heavily reliant on product design. This is the company’s intellectual property (IP). And if this IP falls into the hands of a hacker or a competitor, the entire advantage and years of effort are lost. This has a direct impact on the company’s financial standing because it will fail to recoup its investment in the product development stage. Companies simply cannot afford this to occur.

As a result, companies are hesitant to share their proprietary files with third-party service providers, even if they want it 3D printed. Their scepticism is warranted because, as an industry, we have yet to plug all possible leaks related to the cybersecurity issue.

So, companies are sceptical to share their proprietary files to third-party service providers even if they want to get it 3D printed. Their scepticism is genuine because, as an industry, we haven’t yet plugged all the possible leaks to the cybersecurity issue.

2. Risk of Production

One of the most common 3D printing cybersecurity risk is the risk of production. An unauthorised person gaining access to the system is a risk that could jeopardise any product design. Such a person or people can 3D print a counterfeit copy of the design. This means that the person or people are now illegally in possession of a product that can be sold in the market to make a quick buck.

If the hack is carried out by a larger hacking group, then the security risk doubles and it may result in mass production of these designs which will be sold in the black market at a discounted price. Even worse, what if the culprits print the product but with inferior materials and sell it as the original product? The product is doomed to fail, and the brand’s reputation will suffer as a result.

3. Risk of Liability

A manufacturer has to bear the liability for any defective piece/part/product. The defect can be in various forms like design defect, manufacturing defect, misuse defect. The manufacturer must ensure that none of these defects occur, and that if they do, then the manufacturer must provide a satisfactory resolution to the customer.

But in case the digital warehouse is hacked into by hackers and if the digital design is either sabotaged with dangerous or costly design modifications that can cause harm to the users, then even though the crime was committed by the hacker, but the liability lies with the manufacturer. The manufacturer will have to bear the liability of the consequences the defect causes in the real-world.

4. Risk of Confidentiality

In this day and age, the manufacturer of a particular part does not always own the intellectual property rights to that part. The customer for whom the part is being manufactured may own the intellectual property and demand confidentiality from the manufacturer. It is the manufacturer’s responsibility to keep the designs secret.

The manufacturer faces a significant risk in protecting such confidential designs and ensuring that they are not leaked. In the absence of strong safeguards, hackers may breach the system in order to obtain more information about the designs, features, and the name of the IP holder, which he can then sell to a competitor on the black market. Before the original product is released, the competitor can quickly build and launch a copy.

How to Assuage 3D Printing Cybersecurity Risks?

3D Printing Research
Above: Georgia Tech researchers Raheem Beyah (left) and David Formby (right) propose a three-layer system to mitigate 3D printing cybersecurity risks/Image Source: ASME

While the risks appear to be frightening, they can certainly be mitigated. Experts in the field are already working to eliminate the cybersecurity risks associated with 3D printing.

One solution is proposed by a team of researchers from Georgia Tech and Rutgers University. They have developed a three-layer system designed to verify that 3D printed objects have not been compromised. It uses acoustic measurements, printer component tracking, and detectable nanorods to protect the integrity of printed products. The system works independently of corporate computer networks, removing one of the major gateways to cybercrime.

Many other initiatives are being carried out to solve this critical issue, and as time passes, the systems will become more secure and safe from potential hackers.


About Manufactur3D Magazine: Manufactur3D is an online magazine on 3D printing. which publishes the latest 3D printing news, insights and analysis from all around the world. Visit our 3D Printing Education page to read more such informative articles. To stay up-to-date about the latest happenings in the 3D printing world, like us on Facebook or follow us on LinkedIn.