We readily embrace disruptive technologies because they bring benefits of greater work efficiency, product variety, ease of manufacture, convenience and enjoyment, to name a few.  Yes, disruptive technologies do ‘exactly what they say on the tin’.  They disturb the status quo in markets and products prevailing at the time, and cause manufacturers, distributors, on-sellers and, indeed, users to have to radically adapt their business models, manufacturing and product lines, or decline and possibly perish.

It can take time for the market to react to new technologies, particularly if new applications of the original technology arise from the early adopters finding new uses for the technology.  Sometimes it takes further development of accompanying technologies to catch-up.

We see this latter scenario in the development of ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ or UAVs (aka ‘drones’).  Developments in battery technology to improve energy density and power density have enabled battery powered UAVs to carry greater payloads or have greater duration in the air.  Developments in 3D printing have enabled strong, yet hollow, lightweight body parts and rotor shrouds to be created, further improving duration in the air.  A good example of the early adoption of such advances can be seen in the ‘cyberQuad™’ multi-rotor UAVs developed by Sci.Aero in Western Australia.  The cyberQuad™ UAVs are optimised for stability and durability in the air to provide a stable imaging platform at hard to access sites and thereby avoid the need to put several personnel at risk, such as checking on the condition of pylons, chimneys and towers, or around oil/gas rigs at sea.

3D printing has been rapidly adopted.  The range of 3D printable materials has grown over a very short period.  Metal products can be 3D printed, such as the titanium brackets and lugs for bicycle frames for the 3DP-F1 bicycle produced by Flying MachineTM based in Western Australia.  Carbon fibre is also being 3D printed to form bicycle frame brackets/lugs, enabling any suitable tubing to be used (steel, carbon fibre, titanium, bamboo), with the frame parts bonded together with epoxy resin.  3D printing and other ‘additive manufacturing’ techniques open up a world of possibilities for users.

3D printed components are also being used to form the pattern/model for traditional ‘investment casting’ or ‘lost wax moulding’ techniques.  Thus, 3D printing integrates even into traditional manufacturing techniques.

The challenge for 3D printing is scalability.  Moving from small volume and one off pieces to large volume production may not be possible, and accepted manufacturing processes, such as injection moulding and metal casting/forging, will continue for many products.  However, 3D printing or other additive manufacturing techniques are ideal for rapid prototyping even when traditional manufacturing techniques will be used.

Being first to market makes the biggest initial leap forward, though being second or third to market and learning from the developments and market acceptance of others is also a common business strategy.  The caveat is not to wait too long because early presence in the market creates that initial brand awareness and position that can be difficult to overtake without greater investment in marketing and innovation.

In terms of the next ‘disruptive technology’, graphene is attracting a great deal of interest and investment a decade after it was first isolated.  Market research indicates that the market for graphene materials will increase to at least US$390m by 2024.  It is reported that over 100 businesses worldwide are gearing up to produce graphene by the tonne.  The challenge for many companies is to decide whether to be graphene producers or move into applications of graphene.

Graphene is interesting because of the fundamental properties that arise from its 2D structure (very thin wafers, flakes or sheets of carbon).  Graphene exhibits high tensile properties.  It also interacts resonantly with light at any wavelength to provide broadband emission, absorption and modulation of light, potentially enabling new applications in high speed data transfer and communications.

Whilst graphene is garnering much attention now, it is in fact just one of over 500 different kinds of ‘2D material’.  Some producers are already looking into developing techniques to manufacture other 2D nature materials, such as boron nitride and molybdenum disulfide.  This will enable producers to mix-and-match properties of various 2D materials in the future, and end users will benefit from the individual and combined properties of those combinations.

It is expected that graphene will, in time, be formed into composites with plastics, metals and possibly concrete, to create materials exhibiting new (and controlled) optical, thermal and weathering/corrosion properties.

The disruption that graphene, and other 2D materials, makes in the market may well be much like the disruption that ‘nano’ materials made – we just accept them unless there is a health risk.  Nano-materials are present in many technologies, and the applications of nano-materials are growing.  Producers and consumers readily adopt new products containing such technology because of the user benefits and competitive advantages created.

Disruptive technologies often derive from initial investment in research at a scientific level and collaboration with industry.  National and regional/state governments need themselves to ‘buy-in’ to the value and need to invest in new industries and products.  Innovative nations create business, employment, global position and economic returns for future sustainability.  It is such nations that become the centres of excellence for the future, as well as creating wealth in their own economies.  These are part of the reason that the European Commission (EC) is investing approximately €100m with 142 partners across 23 countries to establish a European scientific and technological lead in graphene production and applications through the EC Graphene Flagship project over a 10 year period.

Innovative practices can themselves be disruptive to a market.  Take, for example, China and Spain recently commencing the ‘21st-century Silk Road’ by operating freight trains the 13,000km between them.  Departing the Chinese coastal city of Yiwu, and crossing Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany and France, the train eventually arrives in Madrid.  The reloaded train then returns with Spanish goods to China.  Although each train takes three weeks to complete a one way journey, this is still quicker than the six week journey using ships, and avoids trans-shipping at ports.  Such innovative trade routes themselves disrupt the accepted use of trucks and ships for volume trade.

Disruptive technologies and disruptive (innovative) practices create challenges for intellectual property rights.  3D printing permits easy copying of products, particularly if product scanning technology is used to create an initial digital file.  Patents, registered designs, trade marks and copyright rights are all at risk of products, components and packaging being copied anywhere in the world with a commercially available 3D printer, without the need for specialist manufacturing skills, equipment or personnel.

The fact that a 3D printer can copy a protected product is unlikely to render the manufacturer or supplier of the 3D printer liable for any infringement or inducement to infringe any IP rights existing in the product, especially if the 3D printer is supplied with suitable warnings that copying products may infringe rights.  The High Court of the UK in CBS Songs Ltd v Amstrad Consumer Electronics plc found that Amstrad’s twin deck tape machines permitting tape-to-tape copying were not of themselves an infringement or authorisation to copy works (songs) from one tape to another.  This is clearly analogous with 3D printing.

However, having IP rights in place in relevant consumer markets and major manufacturing countries remains the strongest and most reliable form of protection from infringement and provides recourse to such infringement.  For example, recourse can be sought against a distributor or end user in an IP protected country receiving 3D printed product from a non IP protected country.  The supplier may be liable for ‘contributory infringement’.  China, being ahead of many more ‘IP developed countries’ has IP regulations to prevent infringing product from being exported overseas, as well as blocking infringing imports.

3D printing infringement cases are beginning to reach the courts.  In the United States, Thomas Valenty was sued for copying models from Games Workshop’s Warhammer range and uploading the 3D print files to Thingiverse, a 3D printing file-sharing site. Games Workshop asserted that the designs produced by Mr Velenty infringed its IP rights.  Games Workshop won the case, and Thingiverse had to remove the files.

With the unstoppable rise of 3D printing and associated ease of copying products, the manufacturing sector has to decide whether to follow the path of the music industry and enforce IP rights through the courts, or embrace new business models.

IP rights will still exist even with the rise of 3D printing.  However, competition will increase.  Anyone can become a designer and producer.  Having strong IP rights becomes more essential than ever.