What you need to know about 3D printing and intellectual property

The Rise of 3-D Printing

A technician checks on a 3-D printer at the Science Museum in London.Advances in additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, now make it easier and less expensive for companies to manufacture products. With 3-D printing, the time and expense needed to design and produce products can be significantly decreased, and articles once considered impractical to manufacture can be commercialized.

3-D printing allows many products that traditionally have been made of multiple components to be manufactured as a single article. Manufacturing companies thus are beginning to realize the benefits of 3-D printing. Aerospace companies, for example, use 3-D printing to manufacture engine components. Automotive companies use it to produce parts such as grilles, exhaust components, and door handles. Healthcare companies use it to create medical devices and synthetic body parts.

Although 3-D printing may be the next evolution in manufacturing, its potential misuse to infringe intellectual property rights raises serious concerns for innovators. 3-D printers are now accessible to essentially anyone. As 3-D printing technology advances and the costs of 3-D printers decrease, many more businesses and individuals may purchase 3-D printers, just as they purchase computers and typical paper printers today.

Businesses and individuals now may have a shortcut to duplicating or copying a product — wrongfully in some cases — after an innovative company or individual has expended significant time, resources, and money to design and develop the product. It will be increasingly important for businesses and individuals to take appropriate steps to protect their IP rights in their inventive 3-D printing processes and designs. Consistent enforcement of these IP rights to hold unauthorized 3-D printers liable for infringement may deter future infringements through 3-D printing.

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