3D revolution: friend or foe?

Posted on 22 Feb 2011 by The Manufacturer

Kim Walker and Matthew Bridger from Thomas Eggar LLP discuss the implications of 3D printing for manufacturers, talking about employment prospects and intellectual property regulation.

Karl Marx warned that “the production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.” A first glance at the latest developments in 3D printing would suggest that the advances in the technology could take it from being a tool to produce product prototypes to something which would replace the production line and lead to mass customisation.

There is no doubt that unions will be eyeing the 3D printer with a great deal of trepidation as its short-term impact may be a loss of jobs, but the technology actually provides a chance for manufacturers to innovate and compete effectively on a world stage.

It is not all bad news. Whatever advances in technology, there will always be a place for hand-crafted goods, and any decline in production line roles would be compensated by an increase in roles which form part of the knowledge economy and create stronger links to the technology sector. Current factory workers may need to retrain, but who better to test and develop the limitations of 3D printing than the staff they are replacing?

There is an image of manufacturing as a staid industry in contrast to the image of technology companies, who are perceived as being more dynamic and innovative. The truth is that manufacturers have learned to innovate in order to survive, and developments in 3D printing mean that the future is likely to hold a lot more collaboration between them and technology companies. Both sectors will need to work together to harness the technology and ensure that it is used to make British production competitive on the world stage.

So far, so positive. However, the real concern comes in the protection of IPR. The collaborative approach would allay those concerns to a certain extent, but no amount of copyright or collaboration has protected the music industry from widespread piracy. In the same way that people are able to source files for a song without paying for it, sourcing the digital blueprint files of any product would be all that would be needed to ask a 3D printer to create a version of a product without the originator’s consent.

The answer lies in getting the balance right between collaboration and protection. As 3D printing becomes more widespread, there is likely to be a greater reliance on Registered Design protection used in combination with Trade Mark registration. There is also likely to be a greater acceptance of open source models, used extensively in the software industry and in many cases, used very profitably. By working with technology companies, manufacturers could harness the open source model and make it pay dividends in physical production just as it has in digital production.

The challenge with IPR currently is that it only applies on a country by country basis, and cannot be applied on a global scale. Far from being a threat, the rise of 3D printing could be the impetus needed to develop worldwide regulation which reflects 21st century international business practices and the technology which drives it.