Intellectual Property

3-Dimensional Printing and its Patent Implications

The following is a guest contribution by David Greene, Esq. of Greene and Greene, Attorneys at Law.

In the last year or so, I have been hearing a lot about a newish technology known as 3D printing. Before this past year, these printers were expensive, but lately have come down in price to the point of being attainable by amateur hobbyists. Now, you can by one of these printers for a thousand dollars or less, though you may be left to put together hundreds of small parts before your printer will work.

If you don’t know, 3D printers are machines that create parts, either by adding together pieces of material (additive), or machines that start with a block of material and cut away at it until a final part is created (subtractive). Think about your computer’s printer being able to print in a third dimension – a user designs a part with a CAD program, clicks print, and the printer “prints” whatever intricate part the user designed.

One such printer is the Print Bot, an additive printer which uses a motor that injects molten plastic onto a hot plate in layers. The layers are roughly half a millimeter thick – the resolution of the printer is defined by the thickness of layers. The thinner the layer, the higher the resolution of the printer. Once the first layer is placed onto the hot plate, the motor adds a layer on top of it. After the second layer is placed upon the first, a third is placed, and so on until there is a final piece.

A client of mine, Wayne from Maine, is using a Print Bot to create plastic pieces for a breath driven synthesizer known as the X-Harp. The video below shows the Print Bot creating a complex mouth piece for Wayne’s X-Harp.

These printers will certainly be making the news in the coming years with respect to patent rights. First of all, hobbyists now have a lower barrier to entry with respect to creating a prototype of their inventions. For example, Wayne from Maine went from sending out his CAD drawings and waiting days or weeks for cast parts to come back, to now being able to print these parts for himself in a matter of hours.

Second, and more significantly, these 3D printers allow users to design parts to replace broken parts on expensive patented devices. Think about your dishwasher. If one of those small plastic clips holding the silverware basket breaks right now, most people will call the producer of the dishwasher, spend a long time on the phone, then pay whatever the producer wants to replace the part. The user may wait days or weeks, and may spend a lot of money, for a simple part because the producer of the dishwasher (at least until recently) has the only means of replacing the broken part. But, with the advent of 3D printing, that user of the dishwasher may simply design and print a replacement part on his own, or he may find and use the part online and then print it.

If the dishwasher analogy doesn’t work for you, think about your cell phone case. Some people, like me, do not use an Otter Box or other protection for their cell phone. As a result, my case has scratches, cracks, and is generally not as well secured to the phone as it once was. If I had a 3D printer with sufficient resolution, I could print a replacement for little cost to myself. Without a 3D printer, if I want a new case, I have to contact Sprint or HTC and pay whatever price they ask. 3D printers therefore have potential to rob patent owners of monopoly profits with respect to replacement parts.

I think the only way that patent owners will be able to cope with the advent of 3D printing is to adapt to the new technology, rather than try to fight it. In that regard, patent owners would be smart to follow the lead of Apple’s iTunes, which has effectively competed with pirated music and has been enormously successful. The reasons that iTunes succeeds is because it is simple, convenient, and reasonably priced. In the same vein, patent owners would harm themselves if they fought the technology the way that the Recording Industry fought the MP3 by suing every downloader it could find in an effort to preserve monopoly profits. Only time will tell.