The cybersecurity risks of 3D printing

By Heather Redding

Today tech enthusiasts around the world appreciate the growing importance of 3D printing. This breakthrough technology has rapidly expanded beyond simple prototype creation and hobby design efforts to transform mainstream manufacturing processes. Currently, 3D printers assist with the production of numerous products, ranging from sophisticated medical devices to car parts and complex aviation components. Rapid advances in 3D manufacturing capabilities promise to augment cost-effective fabrication processes in a rapidly increasing number of industries in the near future.

Yet despite the fast pace of innovation, this nascent field has also begun to attract some potential cybersecurity threats. Understanding unique security challenges implicated by this technology will likely assist many progressive firms in optimizing their 3D printing processes. This brief article seeks to outline some possible 3D printing cybersecurity issues and suggest some potentially useful solutions.

3D printing technology

As an additive manufacturing process, 3D printing enables companies to generate a number of products in a more efficient and cost-effective way on site. Anyone utilizing a 3D printer can use a digital design to create a physical object with the assistance of plastic or metal raw materials. A specialized 3D printer capable of constructing a solid three-dimensional form seamlessly translates the digital instructions into a product by adding successive layers of materials in accordance with software instructions.

While 3D printing technology offers manufacturing enterprises a variety of benefits, this process also harbors the potential for misuse or tampering. Hackers have devised ways to disrupt the smooth operations of business computers through the transmission of destructive viruses, such as Trojans and worms, to accomplish the theft of proprietary commercial information and intellectual property. Similarly, numerous avenues likely exist for criminals to disrupt automated 3D printing protocols and digital design files.

Key cybersecurity risks

The rise of cloud-based computing technology has enhanced opportunities for decentralized, remotely distributed production environments. Yet paradoxically, this development has also probably heightened the need for improved cybersecurity protocols. While additive manufacturing processes permit companies to use raw materials more efficiently, the necessity of relying on digital data streams has also created a number of problems.

Hackers who obtain digital design files do not even require reverse engineering in order to unlock key design features. Criminals can potentially acquire large volumes of proprietary information in an easily modified format. Possibly for the first time, manufacturers face serious risks not only from piracy but also from intentional tampering with design layouts to modify components in an unauthorized manner.

A New York–based academic research team concluded that hackers might introduce design modifications capable of impacting product quality. For example, in some cases, simply changing the orientation of a product during 3D printing may affect its strength and utility for a specific purpose. Industrial espionage, a concern in some economic sectors, might easily become less problematic than industrial sabotage under these circumstances.

3D printing is especially useful for producing custom-designed products when compared to CNC machining and as such promises to revolutionize this sector. One area of particular concern according to security experts relates precisely to the field of customized medical device manufacturing. Currently, instead of manufacturing and shipping medical devices over long distances, some companies use 3D printers to simply transmit CAD files electronically from a service center to a myriad of remote off-site locations for fabrication.

Firms that utilize 3D printing processes to tailor implants to the needs of patients must exercise vigorous cybersecurity precautions in order to safeguard patients against the loss of sensitive personal medical data. Similarly, implementing protocols to double check the accuracy and viability of custom-designed medical implants might help protect branded products from a variety of problems caused by data transmission flaws.

How to stay secure

As a preliminary matter, most IT experts recommend the conduct of a security risk assessment by any company relying upon additive manufacturing. Taking this step assists organizations in pinpointing the most likely product safety hazards. It may also enable managers to assess future potential threats more effectively. A comprehensive analysis enables manufacturers to develop measures to counter specific types of problems.

For example, consider the situation in which a company implementing additive manufacturing creates or scans a 3D design file. Some possible risks, which might arise during this process, include:

  • Theft of proprietary information;
  • Unauthorized locking of the design file;
  • Corruption of design data in the file through the intentional introduction of malicious changes.

By identifying likely possible hazards, an enterprise might decide to initiate precautionary protocols, such as encrypting the contents of proprietary design files to make information theft more difficult. Manufacturing companies might also take measures to reduce or eliminate the outsourcing of confidential information. Within some manufacturing environments, relying exclusively upon removable disc drives, adding wireless firewalls and soundproofing, and disconnecting the 3D printer and its associated computer physically from the Internet might also help lower cyber security risks.

Final thoughts

The recent surge in the popularity of 3D printing technology presents enterprises in many industries with some exciting opportunities today. Yet along with the impressive benefits of this rapidly developing field comes a heightened level of manufacturing cybersecurity risk. Agile, lean management dictates considering some of these potential threats from the outset.

Since interference with 3D printing might introduce defects into products, manufacturing companies and consumers could both potentially suffer harm as a result of an unauthorized access. Risks from potential product failures resulting in injuries, litigation or recalls all warrant careful attention to 3D printing manufacturing security issues. In the future, a receptive marketplace may exist for new cyber security tools that enhance the safety and security of manufacturing venues.

Heather Redding is a tech enthusiast and freelance writer based in Aurora, Illinois. You can reach Heather via Twitter.


  1. Very informational and something very fresh, being in 3D printing service industry i never thought about cyber security but this is very important part of the business to secure our client’s business models. Thank you very much for bringing this up!

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