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A 3D vision for businesses facing the growing printing trend

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3D printing, also referred to as Additive Manufacturing (AM) or Rapid Prototyping, broadly encompasses seven different industrial 3D printing processes and appears set to completely transform traditional manufacturing processes across many key industries. Products that have been made for centuries using methods such as metal stamping and plastic injection moulding can now be produced by depositing layers of material on top of each other based on a 3D digital map created in software. We are about to enter an era where complex, detailed shapes are capable of being produced using relatively low-cost, easy to use systems – even by consumers at home.

The impact 3D printing could have on the business world is huge. In fact, according to “Wohlers Report 2014“, the global 3D printing industry could generate $12.8bn in revenue by 2018 – and exceed $21bn by 2020. The initial growth is expected to be driven by the availability of low cost consumer 3D printers and 3D scanners, removing the need for specialised software or design skills to create print-ready files. However, when we factor in the wealth of opportunities it brings to businesses, including the consumer products industry and any company that makes profits from spare/replacement parts, the financial boost to these sectors could be substantial.

While the 3D printing revolution may be creating exciting opportunities for businesses, there is a large elephant in the room as brand owners realise the impact it could have on intellectual property rights. Due to the very nature of 3D printing technology, which allows existing 3D objects to be copied and created, it raises questions surrounding the risk to IP assets and issues over trademarks, copyright, patents and design patents and publicity rights.

It has become clear that businesses must determine the repercussions of 3D printing and the real threats of infringement and other IP theft in the 3D printing space. While analysts have published predictions showing the positive financial implications of this growing trend, on the other side, Gartner has predicted that by 2018 there will be $100bn in annual IP related losses from 3D printing.

3D threats

One potential risk to brand owners are the so-called “maker spaces”, a growing trend which includes bricks and mortar spaces where customers can create their designs and have them printed in a shop or online maker spaces, and users upload 3D design files to have the objects printed. In addition to the maker spaces, there are also a number of online file sharing websites that allow users to exchange digital content, including 3D printer files, often anonymously.

Businesses that have products with well-known trademarks or trade dress may also be particularly at risk. For example, a user could print a mobile device accessory bearing the logo of the device it is intended to be used with, an area that is becoming increasingly common in 3D printing circles and the online maker spaces. Brand owners must face the prospect that an object could be printed bearing their trademark which doesn’t have the same level of quality as the genuine product. The impact that could have both on the reputation of the brand and consumer confidence in the quality of its products could be significant.

These examples may be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential risks of 3D printing, other IP rights that could also be infringed, intentionally or otherwise, include copyright and licensed products that are relatively easy to copy, objects protected by functional and design patents that could be duplicated without permission and even famous people, if a three-dimensional representation of a celebrity whose likeness may be a protected IP asset is created.

With such a range of threats looming on the 3D printing landscape, we find out what bosses can do to ensure the protection of their companies.

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