A look into the cybersecurity issues of 3D printing

3D printing is pervasive across many industries from medical to automotive to aviation to tech and more. But are there security risks associated with 3D printing? Can 3D printers be hacked? Hari Sreenivasan discusses the cybersecurity issues of 3D printing with Nikhil Gupta, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at New York University.


3-D printing is pervasive across many industries, from medical to automotive to aviation to tech, and more.

But are there security risks associated with 3-D printing?

Can 3-D printers be hacked?

Here to discuss the cybersecurity issues of 3-D printing is Nikhil Gupta, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at New York University.

We're hearing that 3-D printers are going to become something that we might even have at the corner drugstore, or even in our own homes in the future.

So, what's the risk of hacking if it's just a small plastic part that I'm building?

It's really not the small plastic part.

But a lot of industrial parts have a lot of development time that goes into it.

So these are high-value parts.

And 3-D printed parts are now flying on space stations, they are making the space flights possible.

Automotive companies are using them to design new heat exchangers, new types of forms are being designed.

So these are high-value parts where a lot of engineering goes in, so stealing of those designs can be very expensive for companies that lose the intellectual property.

So, what about the idea of just modifying a design without your knowledge?

You've got a few different examples here.


So, what we are trying to do is we are trying to say that... Cybersecurity is a very difficult field.

You know, security has been breached for even the most protected assets.

So our idea is that, once the designs are stolen, there's nothing in the design that stops it from being printed by the people who steal it.

And in hardware sector, the problem is that the design of a component remains the same for many, many years.


So, once it is stolen, people can re-create the entire system based on just a few parts' design.

So, that's the idea that, how do you protect these designs not just from being copied by people for unauthorized sale, but also from re-creating these high-value components like jet engines or space-shuttle parts?

Right now, is there an instruction for the printer to say which direction something should be printed or painted?

Not exactly.

A lot of times, what people do is they put a lot of these components on build plates so that they can make the optimized use of these build plates and keep the cost low.

But what we have seen is that the print orientation actually makes a big difference in the properties of these printed parts.

So, I mean, when we think of printers, and landscape versus portrait mode, right -- how your résumé's gonna look or whatever.

But in your examples here, it can make a big difference.

Yeah, it can make a big difference.

And we have shown that this difference can be up to 20% to 30% in the strength of these parts.

Or you could get two different parts altogether.

So, the first couple pieces that you had on the left, there?

So, in this case, what we have done is we have incorporated some design features.

And these bars are printed exactly from the same CAD file.

And if I flip it over, you can see that this one part in my right hand, it's solid from the back side, but this part in my left hand is hollow from both sides.

So if you don't do the printing correctly, you can end up with something that is completely different from the design intention.

And that means that the part in the left hand was much weaker.

It's much weaker, and it will fail very quickly.

How do you secure 3-D printing design files?

So, when I showed this example, that they are printed from exactly the same file, what we have is a security feature in this design file.

So if you know exactly how to process this file, and in which orientation you should print it, you will get this high-quality part which is solid from the back side.

But there are numerous other combinations of printing process that will give you a defective part like this.

And it will not function the way it was intended.

So, really, the design is part of the encryption or the coding.


Just knowing exactly which direction, which way to print it is a way to protect it so that the person who's trying to steal a part, they're gonna print it incorrectly.


So, in companies, mostly mechanical designers are not much worried about cybersecurity, and that's where we are trying to run a campaign to make sure that people understand that the cybersecurity runs into the design stream.

It is not a job only for cybersecurity professionals.

Nikhil Gupta, NYU Tandon School of Engineering.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you very much.

I appreciate it.