Is your intellectual property at risk from 3D printing?

Posted on 7 Apr 2015 by The Manufacturer

High-value manufacturers may need to extend their intellectual property (IP) protection to guard against commercial competition from online file sharers and the growing number of suppliers with 3D printing capabilities, argues Richard Worthington – patent attorney & senior associate at Withers & Rogers.

Richard Worthington, patent attorney & senior associate, Withers & Rogers.
Richard Worthington, patent attorney & senior associate, Withers & Rogers.

For some original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and Tier 1 suppliers, the rapid take up of 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies may represent a threat, particularly for businesses that have not maintained or extended their IP protection.

3D printing technologies have made it possible for agile suppliers to produce replica parts based on imported CAD files – turning them out quickly and potentially making them available at a competitive cost.

Patent protection alone may not be sufficient to prevent such activity and in some cases OEMs may not even be aware it is happening.

In this environment of uncertainty, OEMs and Tier 1 manufacturers may need to extend their IP rights protection to include registered design rights protection for their industrial designs where possible.

They should also monitor file-sharing websites to ensure any CAD files they own are not being shared inappropriately and be prepared to bring enforcement action to block this activity if necessary.

3D printing and additive manufacturing equipment is becoming increasingly more affordable and versatile, entering a number of different industries and as a result driving UK manufacturing into the future.

From techniques such as laser sintering to fused deposition modelling, and building products from cars to football cleats, advanced technology is set to completely revolutionise manufacturing as we know it.

This year’s 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing Conference will focus on the benefits of investing in advanced technology; including reductions in time and costs; how to create an engaged workforce focused on the future of manufacturing, and what equipment is suited to you.

The conference will include case study presentations, problem solving debates and interactive sessions suitable for everyone, from the first time user to the more experienced manufacturer.

The must attend event if you are looking to explore how 3D printing and additive manufacturing can grow your business.

Registered design rights can be used to protect the shape and appearance of an industrial design. In Europe, this can give the owner an exclusive right to use the design and prevent a third party from using it without their permission for up to 25 years.

Some industrial designs may not be eligible for European registered design rights protection – specifically designs that are purely technical in nature or those that apply to a feature that simply allows a product to fit together.

However, it may be that such design features are protectable in another way, such as by a patent. A qualified patent attorney will be able to advise which type or types of IP protection are required to properly protect a revenue stream.

Another important consideration for manufacturers is the issue of who owns the IP rights, particularly in cases where detailed design work is out-sourced within the supply chain. This matter should be decided early in the procurement process. Again, specialist patent attorney advice will be valuable.

By doing everything possible to protect their industrial designs, manufacturers and Tier 1 suppliers will be able to ring-fence their commercial interests and open up potential commercial opportunities to licence their designs to other manufacturers in the future.

OEMs, suppliers or end users that might be considering sourcing spares from alternative 3D printers in the future – as part of a cost reduction strategy perhaps – need to be aware of the potential risks.

Not only could such suppliers attract litigation if they are infringing a third party’s IP rights, the products they supply may also not meet industry-specific compliance requirements.

The benefits of 3D printing are here to stay and manufacturers need to adapt their IP strategies now to protect their commercial interests. In doing so, they will also be better placed to monetise their innovation as and when new market opportunities arise.