New research from law firm DMH Stallard has found that while many companies are excited by the use and potential of 3D printing, they currently don’t see it posing much of a threat to their intellectual property (IP). This is despite the fact that 3D printing can make counterfeiting goods easier.
The qualitative research spoke to companies working across such areas as using 3D printing to produce prototypes as well as finished parts, and those developing software relevant to 3D printing, design protection and data logistics.
Robert Ganpatsingh, Partner at DMH Stallard and one of the researchers, says: “Of the companies we spoke to, who all operated in a business-to-business environment, the majority believed that their IP would be safe if sensible precautions were taken to protect it. Although they did acknowledge that there was more danger to them at the bespoke end of the scale, where very small numbers of highly customised products are made.
“While this attitude may not cost them today, as 3D printing improves, so does the ability of counterfeiters to rip off IP which is hugely valuable to organisations. Companies need to take steps now to ensure that they are protected in the future as the technology develops.”
The research found that the major motivations for companies to use 3D printing fell into four main categories:
- Supply chain disruption: It allows companies to take back control of their supply chain by producing their own parts.
- Mass customisation: Being able to customise products without the need for expensive and dedicated tools.
- Reverse engineering: Not only does 3D printing allow the design and creation of customised products, it allows models to be created from products.
- Making the impossible possible: It allows the creation of products that other manufacturing methods would not have allowed.
Robert continues: “One of the most attractive things about 3D printing is that manufacturing businesses need only move data to the printer to enable local manufacturing. But this means whoever has that data has the keys to the castle. The UK develops innovative products that are the result of huge investments in research and development. Organisations need to protect their investment by making it as difficult as possible for counterfeiters to copy their products.”
Robert has the following tips for businesses wanting to get the most from 3D printing while protecting their IP.
Ten top tips for making the most of 3D printing
- Evaluate the strategic benefits that 3D printing could bring to your business through increased agility and reduced product development time scales.
- Secure your data both internally and externally. If you need to share designs with third parties, use geometrical models viewed through web based viewers. This means that you can avoid sending sensitive design files which can be rapidly disseminated and easily exploited through 3D printing.
- For added security, invest in your own 3D printing capability to print prototype designs in-house.
- Technology is constantly changing and advancements may overtake your current development and protection strategies. Keep up to date with changes in the industry to avoid this happening to you.
- Set up as many barriers as possible to prevent the copying of your products. Remember to follow tried and trusted strategies to protect IP, such as design rights, patents and trade marks.
- Place greater emphasis on determining which parts of your products may need their own individual protection.
- If you are allowing customers or suppliers to 3D print finished parts of your own design, consider posting them on a site where distribution is controlled. You must have strict contractual terms agreed between you and the 3D printing bureau to give you added protection in case of any lost data, IP infringement or other legal liability.
- If making production parts, ensure that you have appropriate control of processes within your organisation and with any sub-contractors you may use.
- When making production parts, look to protect the process, not just the shape of the parts. Get advice to ensure the most important aspects of your products are properly protected. Don’t forget to look at our earlier report on protecting intellectual property.
- As well as protecting the process used to create products, think about protecting the materials being used and how important they are. This may be through IP or an exclusive contractual agreement with the supplier.
The research report can be downloaded here.