3D Print Wars: Episode 1

Science-fiction minus fiction equals a 3D printer on your desk top. Your youngest kid barrels into your home office crying that his favorite plastic toy broke, so simply print him a new one. Of course, 3D printing is not limited to our favorite polymer-based synthetic. Just imagine printing your very own chocolate bar, titanium iPad case, or even body tissue . . . because it’s already happening.

So, what exactly is 3D printing, and how does it work? At its core, 3D printing involves a technique called additive manufacturing (“AM”), a process by which materials are fused together, layer—by—layer. AM differs from the familiar “subtractive manufacturing” because the builder does not need to cut down or drill into existing materials to create something.

An AM system often starts with Computer Added Design (“CAD”) software. A designer uses CAD to create a 3D model that can be electronically "sliced" into thin (0.1 mm (+/-)) horizontal cross sections. Descriptions of the slices are then sent to the 3D printer, which then “prints” each horizontal cross-section. One layer fuses on top of the next until the last layer is “printed,” and voila— a 3D replica of a hip implant is yours for use! For those of us who have no idea how to construct a 3D model, preexisting models can be freely downloaded from sites like Thingiverse.com or bought at Shapeways.com.

3D printing can involve a variety of materials. The cheapest printers (just under $1000) use plastic. For example, some AM systems use thermoplastics, which when heated to a given temperature become molten liquid. Through a process called Fused Deposition Modeling (“FDM”), thermoplastics are fed from a spool through a deposition head, which melts the plastic. Sound like a hot glue gun? The 3D printer head deposits a thin horizontal cross-section of plastic onto a platform. The platform then drops down as far as the cross section is tall. For example, if the 3D printer head is depositing a 0.1mm layer of plastic, then the platform will drop .01mm. These steps repeat until all the layers are deposited and the final product is complete. Because a 3D printer is basically using a somewhat more sophisticated form of ink jet printing technology, the “science-fiction” of this futuristic sounding process is becoming more affordable and within reach of hobbyist and ‘do-it-yourselves.’

So, why use a 3D printer? Two words: localized manufacturing. Owning a 3D printer could be like owning your own manufacturing plant. Moreover, 3D printers are able to build pre-assembled systems and thus have the potential to lower manufacturing costs. For example, your favorite thing-a-ma-doo is broken. What do you do? “Instead of scouring the Internet for that oddly shaped bracket or hinge [to purchase], . . . print out a perfect replacement part.” The on-demand world will no longer be limited to movies, music, and other digital formats. We’re talking immediacy on steroids.

Who is printing what? Well, British engineers, for example, printed a titanium landing-gear bracket, and researchers are working to print an entire airplane wing. In the medical field, scientists have already printed millions of dental crowns and hearing aid parts, and surgeons in the Netherlands printed an entire titanium jaw. Even more amazing, medical researchers are printing living tissues, and one day may be able to print entire body parts. Hungry? Cornell University printed cupcakes. Chocolate lover? Try buying a Choc Creator from Choc Edge. Even more, some printers, like the British Replicator, can scan objects and then print an exact replica.

This technological innovation is obviously radical, but what about its legal and business effects? Although, the courts have yet to decide a case involving 3D printers one can certainly imagine its implications for intellectual property owners. Could anyone with a 3D printer print multiple copies of a copyrighted toy? Possibly. Or could anyone with a 3D printer print hundreds of knockoff items resembling popular trademarked goods? I don’t see why not. Or what a about printing an entire patented invention? Are 3D printers putting inventors’ exclusivity rights in jeopardy? Time will tell as the IP world waits in suspense to see how business approaches this issue and what legal precedent may come from litigation. Meanwhile, commentators marvel at “the current hysteria over [3D] printing.” Apparently “producers . . . resent the way the market process destabilizes their business model,” but “every new technology [e.g. radio, VHS, copy machine] that becomes profitable causes people to scream about the plight of existing producers.” One commentator suggests that if threatened companies “had a brain, they’d embrace it, put up their own . . . files for about what it costs to buy [their product], and wait to see how the market turns out.”

Photo by Eva Wolf (http://airwolf3d.com) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

To read more about 3D printing and its IP implications, stay tuned for Episode II, in which we explore a particular story involving 3D printing and copyrights.

Read The Articles Underlying This Post

Doug Aamouth, The Delicious Future: 3D Chocolate Printer Finally Available for Purchase, Time Techland (April 9, 2012) http://techland.time.com/2012/04/09/the-delicious-future-3d-chocolate-printer-finally-available-for-purchase/.

Greyhakwk Grognard, Comment to GW Orders Takedown of Warhammer-Style 3D Models, posted by David Miller on Purple Pawn (June 1, 2012, 7:57 PM) http://www.purplepawn.com/2012/06/gw-orders-takedown-of-warhammer-style-3d-models/

Jeffrey Tucker, Capitalist Who Fear Change, Laissez Faire Today (June 19, 2012), http://lfb.org/today/capitalists-who-fear-change/.

Larry N. Zimmerman, Printers Get Interesting, Finally, 81 Kan. B.A. 15 (Jan. 2012).

Micheal Weinberg, It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw It Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology, Public Knowledge (Novermber 2010), http://www.publicknowledge.org/print/6316.

Peter Jensen-Haxel, 3DPrinters, Obselete Firearm Supply Controls, and the Right to Build Self-Defense Weapons Under Heller, 42 Golden Gate Univ. L. Rev. 447, 447-454 (May 2012). http://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/ggulrev/vol42/iss3/6/

Terry Wohlers, Additive Manufacturing 101: Part 1, Wholers Associates (Jan./Feb. 2010), www.wohlersassociates.com/JanFeb10TC.htm

Layer By Layer: How 3D Printers Work, The Economist (April 21, 2012) available at http://www.economist.com/node/21552903.

The Printed World, The Economists, Feb. 10, 2011, available at http://www.economist.com/node/18114221.

Solid print: Making Things With 3D Printer Changes the Rules of Manufacturing, The Economists, Apr. 21, 2012, available at http://www.economist.com/node/21552892.




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