Patent attorney Thomas Prock explores the threats posed by additive manufacturing to automotive intellectual property portfolios
The world has progressively digitised in recent decades and the pace of change is increasing, changing products and industries beyond recognition. The ready and rapid adoption of digital technology in all parts of society is testament to the benefits digital technology provides. At the heart of these new technologies is the management of data flows, be that for the purpose of optimising manufacturing processes or assisting people in the performance of everyday tasks or even automating them altogether.
The automotive industry is no stranger to digitisation, and the particular intellectual property (IP) challenges it brings. Originally, IP conflicts were between rival automotive innovators, and solutions such as cross-licensing IP were relatively easy to agree and cost effective. More recently however, Non-Practicing Entities – entities that have no intention to make or sell the invention covered by IP – have bought up IP rights with the sole purpose of extracting royalty payments from automotive companies. The frequency of such cases has been exacerbated by the digitisation of the automotive industry and the surge in innovation, and need for IP, in the automotive data communication field.
3D printing’s virtual inventories and on-demand manufacturing offer cost-savings and increased flexibility, but there are risks.
It seems a no-brainer to adopt digital supply chains, but they carry risks that are untenable if not eliminated. For example, how do big brands seize such opportunities while maintaining part consistency and quality and protecting their intellectual property (IP) – and ultimately upholding brand integrity?
The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a spotlight on the opportunities presented by 3D printing/additive manufacturing (AM), including the possibilities around virtual inventories and on-demand manufacturing. These advantages can deliver cost-savings, increased responsiveness and flexibility to customers, without the need for huge investments. As we’ve seen, the weak link in any supply chain is maintaining and replenishing the physical inventory – an enormously expensive task.
The need for IP to “catch up” with the capabilities of 3D printing is one of the points made in the book Supercharg3d: How 3D Printing Will Drive Your Supply Chain. Until it does, those considering adopting 3D printing in their supply chains should involve their legal and IP advisors to manage the risks. In this article – published in The Engineer – Marks&Clerk Senior Associate Matthew Jefferies, takes a close look at this topic.
Intellectual property law, and intellectual property strategies, need to move to keep up with the growing 3D printing market, says Matthew Jefferies MPhys, Senior Associate, Marks&Clerk.
The term ‘digital disruption’ has become something of a cliché in recent years, a catch all term used to describe the impact of technologies ranging from artificial intelligence to new communications technologies. What is the reality of digital disruption however, and what can manufacturing and engineering focused businesses do to mitigate the associated risks?
Never waste an opportunity in a pandemic to incur a PR disaster. That appears to be the mantra – if initial reports are believed – of an Italian company who holds a patent on a valve used in breathing machines that are critical for coronavirus patients. The company could not meet the surging demand for its valves. In response to the shortage, two engineers used 3D printers to make these essential devices locally near Brescia in northern Italy, a region the coronavirus has hit particularly hard. In response, the patent holder allegedly threatened a patent infringement lawsuit against them.
In a remarkable testament to the speed and flexibility of 3D printing technology, on the same day the engineers learned about the shortage of valves, they were able to create a digital version of the valve and 3D print working valves. Within a day they had made over 100. (As an aside, 3D printing is at the core of a rapid move to create an open source ventilator to combat shortages.)
To be fair, the company, and one of the individuals doing the 3D printing, denies a threat was made. Although the company did refuse to share the design file with the individuals, forcing them to create a 3D printable digital file from scratch.
Intellectual property (IP) protection is a major feature of the additive manufacturing (AM) sector, with the registration of IP rights covering new AM processes, hardware, materials and end products as well as copyright issues over digital files all commonplace.
Yet, while existing IP laws are generally viewed as adequate for current needs, new technological developments have exposed a number of grey areas in the industry, specifically around subsistence of IP rights, infringement and enforceability.
3D bioprinting is increasingly used to fabricate tissue models for in vitro testing and research, but the long-term goal lies in its application to the field of regenerative medicine. Although many aspects of 3D bioprinting are patentable, bioprinted tissues and organs may face barriers to patentability in the form of excluded subject matter, medical exclusion and public policy.
In the earlier days of Techdirt, Lego made multiple appearances as an IP bully. However, its IP bullying ran into some legal headaches as various courts pushed back again and again and again. The company failed, pretty spectacularly, in its quest to argue that no one could make similar, or even interconnecting, Lego bricks. Its patents long expired, and any copyright and trademark rights were much more limited.
For years, the company has relied on the fact that even with the ability of other companies to copy its designs, really only Lego could manufacture the toy bricks with the kind of exact precision that made them work properly. Knock-offs tended to not connect nearly as well. And Lego’s manufacturing was such that beyond the precision in the blocks, it could also make the blocks so cheaply that it was difficult for anyone to undercut them anyway. Finally, Lego’s brand is pretty powerful in its own right, and many people would buy official Lego products as the default anyway, because of the brand association.
SLM Solutions, a German metal 3D printer manufacturer, has announced that it will integrate the digital security platform of San Francisco-based Identify3D into its workflow. The partnership is an effort to protect intellectual property (IP) in additive manufacturing.
CTO of SLM Solutions Dr. Gereon Heinemann, said, “SLM Solutions recognizes the trend as additive transforms manufacturing into a digital workflow.”
Founded in 2014, Identify3D aims to protect IP in 3D printing by encrypting the digital supply chain. The company is partners with several leading enterprises including 3YOURMIND, Renishaw, Siemens, and America Makes.
The law and 3D printing is a very exciting emerging area of interest for many. What exactly happens with to 3D printed products and liability or IP? Most people in 3D printing don’t want separate laws for 3D printing or 3D printed goods. But, in 3D printed guns we’ve seen lawmakers jump into the crazy clown car of legislating by press release and make separate laws for 3D printing. What will the future hold? Rania Sedhom of Sedhom Law Group reached out to us to share her insights.
Lawmakers seem intent on creating new legislation specifically for 3D printing. Do you agree with that?
Yes, I do. While the technology is a mesh (pun intended) of software and textile, it is unique and needs its own legislation.
“The eventual low cost of 3D printing combined with their ability to produce most physical things will fundamentally change the economics of industrial manufacturing,” states Smith. “Much like the Internet, 3D printers separate the content of the product from the information used to create it, which, in turn, will substantially reduce the manufacturing costs. This feature will inevitably mean that the production of items can come from virtually anywhere which will certainly present problems for governments and markets.”