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3D Printing: Growing the future

3D Printing: Growing the future

Growth in the use of 3D Printing. 3D printing is the process whereby physical objects are created using digital blueprints. Essentially, a 3D image is created using either computer aided design software or a 3D scanner. Thereafter, this 3D digital file is dissected into a series of 2D images, which are then fed into a 3D printer. The printer then "grows" the object, layer by layer. The layers are joined together and once complete, a physical representation of the 3D image from your computer screen is before you.

Contrary to popular belief, 3D printing is not new: it has been used by car and aircraft manufacturers for several years, in the medical profession, in the jewellery and fashion industries and on 19 January 2014, to give Dudley the duck (5 months, resident in BC, Canada) a new foot, after an incident with a particularly hostile peep of chickens! However, it is only relatively recently that SMEs and individuals have started to make prevalent use of this technology and the consequences of mass 3D printing seem not, at present, to have been fully considered.

The principal reason that wider use is being made of the technology is that the costs of accessing it have reduced greatly in recent years. Secondly, 3D printers allow shapes to be manufactured that are particularly intricate or complex, which would be costly to produce, if created using traditional methods. Thirdly, there is minimum waste in the process, since the printer only uses the materials required, rather than starting with a standardised shape and cutting sections away until the desired shape has been achieved.

Open source provides universal access to software with no licence fees. Many of the blueprint designs for 3D printing have been made available through open source. This allows an array of designers, engineers and artists to develop and improve upon products in a way that has never been available to them before. Nevertheless, the philosophy of pooling creativity comes with a price. Intellectual property rights are intended to encourage innovation and creativity by rewarding the creator with a degree of exclusivity in respect of their work.

Digital blueprints, which can be modified by one or more people, could blur the lines of ownership and make it difficult to identify who the work was truly created by. Who then, should the intellectual property rights vest in? Further, if those designs are then "grown" using a 3D printer, with no additional skill being employed in that process, what, if any, intellectual property rights attach to the printed object? Even if the ownership of a designed product is clear, the scope and potential for unauthorised copying of manufactured products, is enormous. 3D scanners can be used to create a copy of the digital blueprint, allowing every element and the most intricate detail of a product to be reproduced and unsurprisingly, many "legitimate" designers, across all industries, are concerned by this.

In order to continue to fulfil their intended function, intellectual property rights must be able to adapt, in order to accommodate the inevitable expansion of commonplace 3D printing. Perhaps a ubiquitous licensing programme is the solution, allowing businesses and individuals to easily licence design blueprints and thereafter, edit them for their own purposes? This could allow the owner to generate licensing income from the designs whilst retaining ownership in them, but at the same time, foster an extended culture of innovation, creativity and development. It's fair to say that 3D printing could, in fact, revolutionise the manufacturing industry. Whilst there will inevitably, be those who dismiss its relevance as a fashionable gimmick, these same individuals may well have expressed doubts about the prospect of digital downloads in the music industry replacing CDs.

Caroline Pigott is a specialist Intellectal Property, Technology and Media Solcitor. We are always delighted to talk without obligation about whether we might meet your needs. Call Caroline 0131 225 8705 or email

Posted by Caroline Pigott


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