For the last 20 years, manufacturers have used 3D printing to build prototypes, but it was only recently that this industrial technology entered the mainstream. The 3D printing of products can enable faster time-to-market, save money, mitigate risk and allow manufacturers to customize a component to suit customer needs. 3D printing can produce individual, specifically tailored parts on demand. Boeing printed an entire plane cabin in 2013 and Ford can manufacture vehicle parts in four days that would have taken four months using traditional methods.
After realizing the boost 3D printing could deliver to manufacturing, the U.S. government increased funding for institutions researching AM technologies. In 2012 the federally funded National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) was launched — a $30 million pilot institute aimed at boosting 3D printing’s use in manufacturing. Also referred to as America Makes, the institute works with brilliant minds from industry, academia, and government. It is expected that these collaborations will help reduce the period of development between a lab’s proof-of-concept and commercial product. With the U.S. government investing more in AM and 3D printing techniques, governmental organizations are now starting to integrate the technology into their own processes.
Jia Li, Innovation Intelligence Consultant at CPA Global, sat down with IPWatchdog to take a closer look at emerging 3D printing patent trends and the innovations government organizations are developing and protecting. Li works at CPA Global patent analytics group, providing information and advices on patent filing strategy, freedom-to-operate, R&D direction and competitor analysis to world-known companies.
Today, according to Li, NASA is one of the most notable federal agencies developing and using 3D printing techniques – producing prototypes and assets for space travel. NASA has filed patents in the 3D printing space since 2009, with innovation focused on manufacturing composite structures and protecting the 3D printing process used to produce them. The Zero-G 3D printer, was sent to the International Space Station in 2014. The printer works by extruding heated plastic, which then builds layer upon layer to create three-dimensional objects. Seven days after being installed and calibrated, the printer manufactured the first 3D printed object in space – a faceplate – and has since been used to successfully print rocket parts in orbit. In-space 3D printing will decrease asset costs and reduce risk on the station, signaling the first step towards a working “machine shop” in space.
In addition, 3D printing has made an impact on U.S. military organizations. In fact, the Pentagon is particularly enthusiastic about 3D printing, identifying the technology as a significant money saver with the potential to improve future surveillance, security and weapons. In October 2014, U.S. secretary of defense Chuck Hagel announced a new “Defense Innovation Initiative” that aimed to develop and field new systems using technologies such as robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data and 3D printing.
The Marines were the first service to 3D print military-grade ammunition and spare parts for weapon systems. Then in early 2017 the Marines revealed plans to prototype, manufacture and deploy surveillance micro-drones. The small, sturdy drones proved cheap to make and the “Nibbler” became the first 3D printed drone used in combat operations by conventional forces. In 2014 the Navy installed a 3D printer on one of its ships, the USS Essex, that is now being used to 3D print parts to construct and assemble custom drones. In 2017, the US Navy held a 3D print-a-thon to showcase the items it now produces with the help of 3D printing technologies, including antennas and spy cameras that can be made in the field.
So, how can they be fully protected against infringement?
“The fundamental benefit of 3D printing is the quick and simple way in which products can be reproduced. It is as simple as downloading a computer-aided design (CAD) file, which can instruct the printer to reproduce a 3D object,” explained Li. “CAD files are digital, meaning they can be shared across the internet, just like movies and music. In other words, they are extremely accessible.”
The commercialization of 3D printing makes policing IP much more complex, per Li. Each printed copy of an invention represents the loss of a potential sale to its patent holder. As the manufacturer is ultimately the end user, it is harder to prove infringement. To sue, the patent owner would need to be aware that a manufacturer is using a 3D printer to reproduce their patented invention.
She explained, “Innovators may need to make the difficult choice of keeping files secret or choosing to publish in pursuit of IP protection. IP owners will need to establish a robust portfolio of copyrightable files. These will serve as proof of an owner’s pre-established rights, and could become a significant source of profit in the future. Equally, if it is foreseeable to use 3D printing to manufacture a product, it would be beneficial to have patent claims that protect a 3D printing method for the product.”
Often, there isn’t retrievable evidence of manufacturing or sales following the 3D printing of copied items. Even if evidence of infringement was available, litigation against numerous infringers would be expensive. However, the Patent Act permits a patent holder to sue parties who induce others to infringe, such as the sellers of the 3D printers, someone providing CAD files of the patented product, or websites that sell or share the CAD files that instruct 3D printers to make the patented invention.
“With a 3D printer anyone can pirate design files and turn the files into tangible objects without owning the IP,” said Li. “This may mean that in the future copyright could merge with patent rights – or at the very least overlap – as it has become much easier to transform between tangible and intangible forms of products and ideas. Before IP law is revised to reflect this change, it is important for innovators to seek copyright protection in addition to patent protection for a new product.”
According to Li, 3D printing is an extremely complex and yet to be concluded area. If anyone can create their own versions of patented or even trademarked IP, protecting rights becomes even more challenging. The benefits of 3D printing come from being able to create a small volume of items quickly and effectively, so in many cases 3D printing will not have the scale to generate commercial benefit in the way that copying a product through large scale manufacturing might.
She added, “It may be that the future will see restrictions on 3D printed goods that are created for commercial benefit but not for personal use. As with every innovation, the law will take some time to catch up with technology.”