How Secure Is Your Digital Additive Manufacturing Data?

South Carolina-based 3D Systems, one of the largest 3D printer manufacturers in the world, last week agreed to pay $27 million to settle with the U.S. Commerce Department for allegedly transmitting design drawings for military electronics and NASA spacecraft to digital manufacturer Quickparts, its then-subsidiary’s office in China for manufacturing price quotes.

Although there’s no evidence that the government’s digital blueprints were accessed by unauthorized parties in the 3D Systems case, the risk raises concerns. As manufacturing becomes increasingly digital, cloud-connected, and distributed globally, how vulnerable is an all-digital manufacturing process chain to viruses, sabotage, or counterfeiting?

“In additive manufacturing, and probably manufacturing in general, the more digital it becomes, the more opportunities for malfeasance happen inside of the workflows and the data,” says Bryan Crutchfield, VP and general manager for North America at Materialise, an additive manufacturing software developer and 3D printing service provider. “Given its digital nature, distributed and additive manufacturing are probably even more susceptible to security breaches than conventional manufacturing because everything is happening in the digital thread.”

And by everything, Crutchfield means not only part designs or blueprints but also the 3D printer settings (there can be dozens), the material composition, and other steps a company would consider its proprietary process.

By contrast, in traditional manufacturing, much of the process expertise and skill required lies in the machine operator’s head, on paper schematics, in factory-specific material recipes, or in other processes unique to particular facilities.

With digital manufacturing, the full recipe to manufacture a part is sharable and storable. Although this can present new data security risks, it’s a tremendous advantage for distributed manufacturing; where digital files and manufacturing instructions are transmitted directly to 3D printers closer to customers and often time zones away.

With Manufacturing Innovation Comes New Risk

This decentralized production model cuts transportation costs (and carbon footprint), enables faster production times since goods can be produced in multiple locations simultaneously, helps mitigate supply chain disruptions, provides production redundancies, and opens the door to more product customization, as each production location can specialize in a product variation. It’s a practice on the rise, despite data security concerns.

“The factory of the future will not be a single, central location,” says Fried Vancraen, CEO of Materialise. “Instead, future manufacturing, enabled by smart technologies like 3D printing, will take place at multiple digital production sites, distributed around the world, closer to customers. But this will only be possible when companies are sure that their design and production data remains secure.”

Particularly in 3D printing, which has enjoyed an upsurge in adoption since the pandemic and geopolitically induced supply chain turmoil, the potential for distributed manufacturing to boost efficiencies and lower costs has companies reassessing their established processes and investing in new technology.

Rather than contract with one factory, a growing field of on-demand manufacturers, such as Xometry, Carpenter Additive, and Quickparts, are pitching the virtues of distributed manufacturing.

In fact, Quickparts announced in January that it is adopting the CO-AM platform, launched last year by Materialise. It integrates a range of additive manufacturing software products — covering all the process steps from initial design through to the final product — in a cloud solution that also includes a suite of security features.

“Adopting CO-AM within Quickparts’ manufacturing operations will enable us to streamline our distributed global production facilities and modernize our capabilities,” said Quickparts CEO Ziad Abou, in a statement. The platform also provides Quickparts with new security features, such as end-to-end data encryption and digital rights management, which can, for example, allow a part from a digital file to be printed only a specified number of times in a particular location.

Crutchfield at Materialise says more companies adopting additive manufacturing have data security top of mind. “Now, even for our basic software that’s been in the market for 30 years, we get extensive security questionnaires from our customers asking if we are compliant with various security standards and what is our level of security. And that’s exactly why we developed our CO-AM platform.”

Mitigating the Digital Risk

Whether companies are more concerned with data security because they’re moving to digital manufacturing or because hacking and cyber threats are more prevalent today in general, is difficult to assess.

Greg Hayes, SVP of applied technology at EOS North America, a large 3D printer maker and additive manufacturing advisory company, says digital security threats are not unique or special when it comes to additive manufacturing.

“Additive manufacturing is an emerging technology, but it’s not uncovering a massive new risk when it comes to security that isn’t already there. You just have to take this new tool — an additive manufacturing machine — and incorporate it into the secure manufacturing environment that your organization, hopefully, already has completed,” he says.

Although additive manufacturing doesn’t inherently bring with it any extreme risks, says Hayes, it can be the first time a manufacturer is faced with digital processes and establishing secure IT systems.

“We work with companies all the time that have a traditional manufacturing line where plans are still on paper, and the data is stored on a local hard drive,” says Hayes. “Implementing additive allows that company to jump steps ahead in the technology curve, and all of a sudden, they can have digitally connected systems and cloud networks.”

Securing those networks is up to individual organizations, notes Hayes. “The security of any data inside of that EOS machine is as safe or as vulnerable as that organization’s overall IT security.”

Internally at EOS, security is tight. The company lunched a global contract manufacturing network for 3D printed part production in 2022 with robust security measures in place. EOS has a growing number of customers in defense contracting and other industries where specific security protocols are required, says Hayes. “It’s absolutely something that EOS takes very seriously, and we work constantly to make sure that we’re doing what we need to be doing.”

For example, when working with US government agencies, EOS follows ITAR, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, to safeguard sensitive defense-related information and technologies. As an ITAR-compliant organization, EOS limits data access to authorized personnel, even when servicing 3D printers at government or military installations.

In fact, the U.S. military is advancing its own strategy to securely manufacture, test, and deploy critical replacement parts for aircraft and other weaponry on forward operating locations and bases around the world using 3D printing.

Transmitting part files directly to cloud-connected 3D printers anywhere is an essential readiness element that additive manufacturing offers militaries. Keeping those files out of the hands of the enemy is a challenge the U.S. Air Force hopes to solve with blockchain data encryption.

Last month, the Air Force awarded a $30 million contract to blockchain innovator SIMBA Chain to develop secure supply chain management program.

As manufacturing, prototyping, and spare part production becomes more digital, companies are tasked with establishing new security protocols. New and existing software can help remove the security hurdle unlocking the potential of distributed digital manufacturing.