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.
3D printing has captured the imaginations of engineers, researchers and manufacturers in ways that no other advanced manufacturing technique has done previously. In simple terms, a 3D printer can turn digital representation of an object into a physical object. Users of 3D printers can download digital 3D model files that can allow a 3 dimensional object to be printed. These 3D model files can be derived from existing objects by way of a 3D scan or they can be created independently of any real object through traditional Computer-aided design (CAD) techniques.
3D printing’s promise in terms of a rapid, sophisticated and cutting edge manufacturing technique is unequalled in the field of materials science and manufacturing. 3D printing will usher into the marketplace the next digital disruption, that of digital manufacturing and construction, a disruption that is undeniably gaining momentum.
In the year 2000, the music business was still strong. Record companies produced albums and shipped these physical objects to the stores that sold them. The internet was slowly becoming a system of mass consumption and distribution, but most consumers still purchased physical media. And while the record industry was aware of piracy online, the threat seemed minimal.
Then came Napster.
The music industry tried to stop this large-scale piracy by pursuing both the platforms and individual downloaders — including poor college students. But public opinion turned against the industry. After all, stealing digital music is intangible; it’s different than physically swiping actual CDs or tapes from brick-and-mortar stores. And while today many people access their music legally, it’s safe to say that music industry revenues have yet to recover.
3D printing offers great promise for innovation and manufacturing, but this tool has expanded the scope of patented products that can be easily and cheaply copied, and may make it harder to identify and prosecute infringers. The USPTO held a conference on legal and policy issues surrounding 3D printing on June 28, 2016.
According to Russell Slifer, Deputy Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO, patent filings relating to 3D printing have increased 23-fold over the last five years, and trademark filings for businesses involved in 3D printing have increased 300% over the same time period. While there is great interest and excitement surrounding the promise of 3D printing, there also is concern about how 3D printing could make it easy to copy a patented product with just a push of a button.
With 3D printing technologies emerging rapidly and a wide variety of industries looking to adopt 3D printing to streamline production and save on material costs, there is a lot of potential for market expansion. In fact, the research firm Canalys has forecast the 3D printing market, which includes 3D printer sales, materials, and associated services, will continue to experience rapid growth and reach US $16.2 billion by 2018.
Canalys Senior Analyst, Tim Shepherd, points out that “this is a market with enormous growth potential now that the main barriers to up-take are being addressed. Advances in technology are yielding faster print times and enabling objects to be printed in greater combinations of materials, colors, and finishes. Crucially, prices are also falling, making the technology an increasingly feasible option for a broad variety of enterprise and consumer uses, restricted only by computer-aided design competencies and printer availability – both of which are set to improve significantly.”