The gains from the global 3D printing revolution come with tremendous risk of IP theft — if not carefully managed.
The 3D printing industry is expanding at a rapid pace. Global revenue from additive manufacturing, which consists of printing layer upon layer of a material to make an object out of a digital file, is expected to top $21 billion by 2020 — a seven-fold increase from 2013.
The evolution of 3D printing technology provides tremendous opportunities for increased creativity, efficiency, productivity and flexibility. Prototyping has driven the adoption of 3D printing in the manufacturing sector so far, but increasingly, the technology is being used to produce final products, components and high-value functional parts. More than 28 percent of spending on 3D printing went toward final part production in 2013, up from just below 4 percent 10 years earlier, according to consulting firm Wohlers Associates.
From jet engines to chocolate candy to bionic limbs, 3D printing technology is being used in every manufacturing sector by companies of all sizes — and the possibilities are endless. But opportunities do not come without risks. One of the major challenges facing manufacturers in this new environment is how to protect and enforce intellectual property (IP) rights.
Analogous to the problems experienced in the music industry with the onset of digital content-sharing through sites such as Napster, issues related to IP protection in the manufacturing sector will grow as 3D printing proliferates. Advances in 3D technology will simplify the infringement of patents and trademarks by greatly reducing physical and cost barriers. By 2018, 3D printing will likely result in the loss of at least $100 billion per year in intellectual property globally, according to a recent report by Gartner.
As technology continues to evolve, manufacturers will need to determine how to make 3D printing a benefit, not a liability. That starts with rethinking business models and taking a closer look at export markets and countries that house their suppliers. Manufacturers that enjoy a competitive advantage from additive manufacturing will also need to audit their current IP portfolio to determine the adequacy of their current IP protection strategy. To the extent that vulnerabilities are identified, they should consider a number of IP protection tools — including design patents, trademarks, utility patents, copyrights and trade secrets.
Perhaps more importantly, now is the time for the U.S. government and the manufacturing community to come together to ensure that the proper policies and regulations are in place to protect IP rights — while simultaneously harnessing the innovation that 3D printing makes possible.
Here are just some of the key questions that should be explored:
- How should we define infringement in the 3D printing context? Is the unauthorized printing of a patented product for private use actionable, or is the distribution of such product to a third party the actionable offense?
- Should the standards for enforcement and remedies vary depending upon the products involved?
- Are harsher remedies appropriate for the unauthorized printing of medical devices, as opposed to products that have nothing to do with health and safety?
Stakeholders in the public and private sector should explore the answers to these questions and others now to ensure that the benefits of 3D printing are not outweighed by the burdens of IP rights infringement. In the 21st century,we need a multi-dimensional approach to prevent 3D printing from becoming a tool not just for advanced manufacturing, but for IP rights infringement.
(Top GIF: Video courtesy of GE)
Nicole Y. Lamb-Hale is a Senior Vice President at Albright Stonebridge Group (ASG) where she provides strategic advice to companies as they develop and implement their global business objectives, including the expansion of their exports to, and presence in, international markets. Lamb-Hale also serves as Vice Chair of the National Alliance for Jobs and Innovation. Prior to ASG, she served as the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Manufacturing and Services in the International Trade Administration. Lamb-Hale was previously the Managing Partner of the Detroit office of international law firm, Foley & Lardner LLP, where she specialized in business restructuring in the manufacturing sector.