The use of 3D printing has been growing rapidly in recent years. Businesses in the high-value manufacturing sector, particularly those with a strong aftermarket, were among the early users of 'stereolithography', a form of 3D layering and printing technology developed in the 1980s for the purposes of rapid prototyping.
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Continued development of the technology has led to the possibility of more wide-ranging uses for the manufacturing technique in production parts. New metallic 3D printing technologies, in particular, are opening the door to some exciting possibilities for manufacturers to produce complex parts for aircraft, cars or other high-end machinery more quickly.
However, for some original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and tier one suppliers, the rapid take up of 3D printing technologies may represent a threat, particularly for businesses that have not maintained or extended their IP protection.
3D printing technologies have made it possible for agile suppliers to produce replica parts based on imported CAD files – turning them out quickly and potentially making them available at a competitive cost. Patent protection alone may not be sufficient to prevent such activity and in some cases OEMs may not even be aware it is happening.
In this environment of uncertainty, OEMs and tier one manufacturers may need to extend their intellectual property rights protection to include registered design rights protection for their industrial designs where possible.
They should also monitor file-sharing websites to ensure any CAD files they own are not being shared inappropriately and be prepared to bring enforcement action to block this activity if necessary.
Protecting your rights
Registered design rights can be used to protect the shape and appearance of an industrial design. In Europe, this can give the owner an exclusive right to use the design and prevent a third party from using it without their permission for up to 25 years.
Some industrial designs may not be eligible for European registered design rights protection – specifically designs that are purely technical in nature or those that apply to a feature that simply allows a product to fit together. However, it may be that such design features are protectable in another way, such as by a patent. A qualified patent attorney will be able to advise which type or types of IP protection are required to properly protect a revenue stream.
Another important consideration for manufacturers is the issue of who owns the intellectual property rights, particularly in cases where detailed design work is out-sourced within the supply chain. This matter should be decided early in the procurement process. Again, specialist patent attorney advice will be valuable.
By doing everything possible to protect their industrial designs, manufacturers and tier one suppliers will be able to ring-fence their commercial interests and open up potential commercial opportunities to licence their designs to other manufacturers in the future.
OEMs, suppliers or end users that might be considering sourcing spares from alternative 3D printers in the future – as part of a cost reduction strategy perhaps – need to be aware of the potential risks.
Not only could such suppliers attract litigation if they are infringing a third party's intellectual property rights, the products they supply may also not meet industry-specific compliance requirements.
The benefits of 3D printing are here to stay and manufacturers need to adapt their intellectual property strategies now to protect their commercial interests. In doing so, they will also be better placed to monetise their innovation as and when new market opportunities arise.
Words: Richard Worthington
Richard Worthington is a patent attorney & senior associate at Withers & Rogers.
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