Don’t go 3D printing my products

The expected rise in counterfeiting as a result of 3D printing has yet to manifest, and as the technology’s positive effects become more clear, brands should look to take advantage of the opportunity

Despite the uncertainty and concern that surrounded the rise of 3D printing, as of now, the technology has not seemed to have the expected impact on intellectual property rights.

Early estimates that the rise of 3D printing could pose a threat to IP stemmed from speculation that advances in 3D printing technology would allow consumer printers to print products which have functionality utility, rather than mere novelty value.

Four years ago, the potential of 3D printers to infringe was considered high and industry spectators envisioned a world in which IP rights owners would have to identify and prevent infringement in the homes of the general public, rather than tackling criminals who are making a living selling counterfeit goods.

Where counterfeits are concerned, the forecasted wide availability of 3D printing has yet to come to pass, and brands can rest a little easier knowing that 3D printers haven’t had as steep of a price drop as other emerging technologies.

In fact, the past two years have seen 3D printing praised for its applications in the medical device and aeronautics industries, providing ease of access to cheaply made, but high quality tools and components.

Last year, director general of the World IP Organisation (WIPO) Francis Gurry said that the introduction of 3D printing, alongside other emerging technologies, has shed a bright light on the future and further progress.

In April, WIPO launched a campaign dedicated to the impact that innovation has on improving quality of life. The campaign has looked at—and continues to look at—the introduction of new and exciting technologies, for example how a 3D printer in an American university can regenerate damaged human tissue.

Justin Pierce, chair of US-based law firm Venable’s IP division, says that 3D printing has had a “significant and positive impact in certain industries thus far”.

“Many companies involved in aeronautics, medical devices, surgical tools, and tissue and organ engineering have harnessed the benefits of 3D printing to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the products and components their offer,” Pierce adds.

He comments that there are few sources of hard data on the cost of 3D printing-related IP infringement or counterfeiting and, while many attorneys and legal commentators have expressed concerns about the potential for abuse of the technology, it appears that the industries and IP supporting 3D printing are “healthy and robust”.

“Engineers and scientists are using additive manufacturing for innovations in a wide range of industries, including consumer products, aeronautics, medical devices and surgical tools, tissue and organ engineering, and pharmaceuticals,” he says, “We are still in the early stages of the application and development of 3D printing in many industries, and it has been hard (so far) for experts to quantify the impacts of 3D printing counterfeiting.”

However, this doesn’t mean that danger isn’t abound for brands and legitimate consumers, and Pierce notes that, under the right circumstances, the rise of 3D printing poses “unique IP challenges for designers and manufacturers of products, especially those relating to consumer products”.

“For basic items, counterfeiting can be as simple as making a computer model of your product using a 3D scanner and printing the product from that model using a 3D printer.”

He adds: “Due to the decreasing size of 3D printing machinery, counterfeiters can move operating sites quickly to avoid law enforcement. Also, similarly to a number of illegal digital music and video file-sharing services, counterfeiters may sell designs or instructions (for example, a three dimensional model) for consumers to use on their own 3D printers to make the counterfeit product at home.”

So what can brands do to mitigate the risks of infringement from 3D printing? Pierce says that this environment is “challenging” for IP owners and that they should consider “proactive approaches”.

Pierce explains that businesses should focus on innovation and speed to market, although it’s easier said than done. He says: “Businesses must strive to implement a production cycle that stays ahead of competitors and counterfeiters alike. Companies that bring their products (and new versions) to market quickly, not only entice consumers to purchase the new versions of a product, but also make it hard for those trying to imitate the latest version of their product.”

Pierce also extends an invitation for companies to harness the benefits of 3D printing technologies. He argues: “Savvy brand owners and manufacturers can harness the benefits of 3D printing technology to offer a wide variety of product accessories, and efficiently offer replacement parts. By proactively using 3D printing to both produce high quality goods and enable greater consumer access to one’s brand, businesses have much to gain from an early investment in this market.”

He says that the 3D printing consumer will likely follow global trends and, in tandem with the increasingly legitimised use of digital music downloads and video streaming services, he expects to see the same from consumers in the near future, “who will be seeking a user-friendly 3D printing service and expect a certain level of quality in the final 3D printed product”.
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