3D printing: an IP opportunity?

Published on
6 min read

3D printing has seen a lot of airtime during the COVID-19 crisis. It is also rapidly developing. These features also make intellectual property highly relevant, both as a business opportunity and a potential risk.

3D printing (or “Additive Manufacturing”) is in the limelight. During the COVID crisis there has been an exceptional demand for some products for protecting lives and 3D printing has stepped up to the mark. It has demonstrated its versatility in the face of a crisis, being used to make parts for ventilators, face masks and other products. It has been used by major manufacturing companies and research organisations, and by individuals in private households.

Although 3D printing has been around for a while now, more recently it has become a significant manufacturing tool, and has been adopted into the manufacturing processes of a number of industries, most notably the car industry.

Examples of its use stretch from the manufacture of bespoke parts for use in F1 racing cars, and components in aeroplanes, through to use in medicine and dentistry – such as bespoke manufacture of dental crowns, carefully coloured to match the adjacent teeth, to consumer items such as jewelry. Perhaps more engagingly, it has reached the wider public with toys and make-it kits for children and adults.

Of course, 3D printing or additive manufacturing is not really a “technology”; it is a broad term covering a very wide range of processes which have a common element – the addition of material in steps to build up an object with the desired overall shape (and structure). There are many ways of achieving this. At the microscopic scale, inkjet printing technology can be used directly to build up structures from minute droplets or to enable powders to be bonded layer by layer precisely where the “ink” is deposited. The powders can be polymers or metal powders, and the “ink” can be a bonding agent itself or can absorb energy to permit localised bonding when exposed to heat.

At the medium scale – which has attracted most public attention in the COVID crisis – plastic can be extruded from a print head, like a robot controlled glue gun, to build up specially designed shapes. At the largest scale, “3D printing” is being used in the construction industry for “printing” components of bridges and buildings from material such as concrete.

However, all of these approaches have some common elements: they are versatile – and can be adapted to different products or to different designs of the same product and to make products with a structure which cannot practically or economically be produced using other techniques such as injection moulding; and this can be done rapidly, so products can be prototyped quickly, tested and modified to improve their features, or specific bespoke products can be produced without the time and cost of preparing, for example, tools for injection moulding. This makes the technology one which lends itself to innovative product development – and hence potentially to intellectual property which can be used to protect those innovations.

In addition, additive manufacturing technologies are still, relatively, in their infancy. There are many opportunities to develop the technology further, and this provides a separate stream of potential innovation – in the processes themselves, in material used in those processes, and in the pre- and post-processing for the materials and products produced. As an illustration over the 10 years to 2017 patent filings for additive manufacturing technology look to have grown exponentially.

One might almost say that 3D printing technology is custom made for intellectual property opportunities. The reasons can be summarised:

  • All early stage technologies provide a wide field for playing intellectual property – more on that in a moment
  • 3D or additive technologies add a layer of excitement:
    • fast prototyping enables a rapid development, testing and enhancement cycle, and an opportunity to solve both known problems and ones you did not know you had when you started;
    • the output itself – a 3 dimensional article – has features of shape and appearance: these provide a basis for protection as designs., even, in some cases if there is a substantial functional requirement;
    • there is plenty of know how to be accumulated in designing a product for optimal production on an additive technology platform. Understanding how to layer the product, what is strong, weak, what is fracture prone. Other technologies such as injection moulding have become part of the engineering skill set – for 3D printing there is still a learning curve.
  • There are new ways of designing which would not have been possible in other technologies – or very expensive.

Each of these give rise to potential for intellectual property protection – from costly but very powerful tools, such patents on innovative solutions to problems; through intellectual property rights which specifically address the shape or appearance of articles such as rights in designs (and copyright in drawings and their electronic equivalent); to trade secrets, confidential information, know-how, and very difficult to protect experience and staff skills.

The key to getting the best out of the opportunity is to have (or to develop and implement) an intellectual property strategy. That is not just to protect anything that moves or run scared from any IP sighted in the distance – but to understand why, when, and how opportunities and risks in relation to intellectual property arise and can be managed in a commercial and proportionate way.

That and the key elements and impact of each of these intellectual property rights, their ownership (for example where third parties such as contractors are involved), and some of the challenges are for a future blog. In the meantime, here is a quick (and not very legal) summary of the most important technical intellectual property rights:

  • Patents protect inventions of a technical character – that is new products or processes which are “inventive” – not obvious to the engineer in the relevant field. The invention must be “claimed” in an application to national or regional patent offices. The application must usually be made before the invention is disclosed.  They are relatively costly to apply for and maintain, and there needs to be a reasonable proportionate commercial justification for seeking patent protection.  Professional advice is essential.
  • Design rights broadly protect the shape or appearance of an article. They can arise automatically (in which case they protect against copying); or registered (with national IP offices) in which case, if the design was a new one, making the same or similar design, whether or not it is copied, may infringe. The requirements differ considerably between countries – for example, whether the design is purely functional, whether it is visible in use, and whether the shape is constrained by other factors may matter; and some countries, like the UK, have several different forms of design protection. Generally professional advice is desirable for registering a design, and may be helpful for optimising protection from unregistered designs or copyright in design works.
  • Confidential information is best protected either by keeping the information secret or by using written (confidentiality) agreements – and marking it appropriately. The level of protection possible will depend on the type of information. Information or know-how which forms part of the skills and expertise of employees will always be more difficult to protect – and if protection would be worth having, deserves specific attention.

 

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