Court of International Trade published opinion earlier this month, laying down the HTSUS classification principles for 3-D printing technology (or “laser sintering” / “additive manufacturing” machines, using the court’s terminology). The 46 page opinion – EOS of North America, Inc. v. US – lays rest to rumors and ambiguities of how this increasingly popular technology should be classified. Classification principles can change if the case is appealed, but Judge Stanceau did a fine job of explaining the position of the court.
Members of international trade community had divergent views about the appropriate classification of the product. Some even expressed views that 3-D printers should be classified as domestic appliances (HTSUS heading 8509), reasoning that the 3-D technology is cost effective and is becoming a household item. Other, more reasonable propositions entertained classification in the machine tools category (HTSUS heading 8463) and laser welding machines (HTSUS heading 8515). The opinion, at least for now, settled this controversial question.
Court concluded that 3-D printers, such as described below, designed to work with plastic materials are classified under 8477.80.00, which provides for “Machinery for working plastics … Other.” However, if the 3-D printers can work with materials such as metals, instead of or in addition to plastics (and presumably rubber), then the appropriate classification is 8479.89.98, which provides for “Machinery … having individual functions, not specified or included elsewhere … Other.”
Specifically, court addressed two 3-D printers, which have the appearance to the one on the right (which reflects a newer EOS M 280 model from the manufacturer). First model, Lasersintering system EOSINT M 270, used metal particles. Second model, Lasersintering system EOSINT P 390, was designed to work with thermoplastic powder instead of metal powder.
Both models prepared end product by creating the three-dimensional shape of an object from computer. Then, machines use laser to melt metal powder particles or thermoplastic powder particles, one layer at a time. The process took place inside an enclosed, atmosphere-controlled chamber. Machines are powered by electricity and consist of the following components:
- Machine housing for gas-tight “build” or “process chamber.”
- Optical system with solid-state laser. The laser shoots down upon the powder, elevating the temperature such that the powder fully melts and intermixes; melting more then one particle at a time; and applying no physical/electro-magnetic force or pressure upon powder. After the laser moves away from the spot being heated, the melted material cools and solidifies such that it becomes attached to the surface below it.
- Digital high-speed scanner (“galvanometer”). The galvanometer focuses the light energy of the laser onto an area of the powder.
- Recoating system. During the build process, a recoating “arm” distributes the metal or thermoplastic powder pursuant to the particular pattern of the computer assisted design. After the two-dimensional layer is complete, the laser turns off, the platform on which the article is being built drops, and the recoating arm spreads a fresh layer of powder across the top of the incomplete article. The process is repeated, one layer at a time, until the object is complete.
- Elevator system for building platform.
- Heating modules.
- Nitrogen generators, that pump nitrogen gas into the build chamber, without which the atmospheric conditions could cause distortion and degrade the quality of the powder.
- Process computer with process control software.
- Compressed air connection.
- Electrical power connection.
Additionally, none of the machines come with part-specific dies, jigs, or molds. Both machines can create entire objects using only a powdered starting material, not already-formed parts or components.
The opinion noted that “[t]he laser sintering process performed by the P390 [thermoplastic 3-D printer] is analogous to that of the M270 [metal 3-D printer] in all respects material to tariff classification, except that the starting material is thermoplastic powder instead of metal powder.” Noting the difference in material use and factual characteristics, members of international trade community can now use HTSUS 8477.80.00 as a starting point of classification inquiry for 3-D printers that use thermoplastic powder, and HTSUS 8479.89.98 for 3-D printers that use metal powder, backed by the opinion of the court.