In the world of technology, 3D printing is becoming both cheaper and more popular, but cybersecurity concerns brought to light by researchers at New York University might cause some proponents to pause.
According to a paper by NYU researchers from the Tandon School of Engineering, there are two things that can cause a potential risk to product quality in 3D printing: printing orientation and the addition of fine defects.
"These are possible foci for attacks that could have devastating impact on users of the end product, and economic impact in the form of recalls and lawsuits," said Nikhil Gupta, a materials researcher and NYU associate professor of engineering.
According to Ramesh Karri, cybersecurity researcher and NYU engineering professor, cyber attackers could hack into printers that are connected to the Internet right before the item is set to be printed and cause major defects.
In 3D printing, it is important to design a digital model that is strong enough that it won't break due to structural defects. If a hacker comes in after the object has been designed carefully, the integrity of the end product could be compromised.
In 2D printing, printer orientation doesn't have a large impact on printed items. However, the NYU team says it can make a significant difference in 3D printing.
When printing in 3D, a product is first built in a computer assisted design (CAD) file sent by a designer. Then, the manufacturing software breaks down the design into slices and orients the printer head. The printer then applies material in very thin layers. According to the team, hackers who reorient the printer head can change the strength of a 3D-printed item by up to 25 percent, thus compromising its integrity. Currently, CAD files don't have instructions for printer head orientation, so hackers could change this without detection.
These same hackers can also insert sub-millimeter defects between layers of printing material, thus causing further weakness to the 3D-printed objects. Researchers say these small differences can go undetected by traditional monitoring methods, like ultrasonic imaging. These small defects could eventually cause a product to fail.
According to the NYU paper, members of the 3D-printer industry don't have sufficient defenses against such attacks. NYU researchers are calling for additional research on 3D-printing security risks and defenses.
In addition, they say new methods and tools should be developed in order to properly monitor the quality of 3D printed items, thus reducing the manufacturer's' risk of defects with the items.
"New cybersecurity methods and tools are required to protect critical parts from such compromise," said Karri.
In the US, 3D printer sales are growing. According to a report from the International Data Corp. (IDC), there was a 20 percent increase in 3D printer shipments in 2015 compared to 2014. According to Tim Greene, who leads the IDC's research efforts in large-format printing, this is just the beginning. Currently, the 3D printing industry is a $4 billion business; that number is expected to quadruple by 2020.
Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration certified the first 3D-printed part for GE commercial jet engines. Companies like Ford Motor Company are already using 3D printers to build products and prototypes. At some point, manufacturers could print everything from cars to medicines on 3D printers.