3D printing is a manufacturing process that builds a three-dimensional object of virtually any shape from a computer-driven digital model. A manufacturer can use a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) program to create a digital model that gets sliced into very thin cross-sections called layers. Each layer is then sent to a 3D printer which can print them successively until the entire object is formed. The 3D printing is also considered distinct from a traditional machining technique, which mostly relies on the removal of a material by methods such as cutting or drilling.
The market for the 3D printers and services is small, but growing very quickly. As 3D printers are gradually becoming cheaper, 3D printing is fast becoming integrated into mainstream manufacturing. According to a consultancy firm specialised in 3D printers, in 2012 the market was worth about $2.2 billion worldwide, up 29 per cent from 2011. 3D printing technology is used for both prototyping and distributed manufacturing with applications in the military, engineering, the dental and medical industries, biotech (e.g. human tissue replacement), architecture, construction, industrial design, aerospace, fashion, footwear, jewellery, education, geographic information systems, food, and many other fields. As producers become more familiar with the technology, they are moving from prototypes to final products.
While it is tempting to think that 3D printing is a new technology, it has actually been evolving since mid-1980s. One major 3D printing technique invented in the 1980s is the Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) technique. Because laser-sintering is capable of printing in plastic, metal and ceramics with high levels of detail, it is often used to make finished products rather than mere prototypes. Various patents (e.g. US 5,597,520) exist on laser sintering. Many of the key SLS patents are owned by large 3D printer manufacturers. However, in 2014, key patents on SLS will expire. As they do so, it will become possible to use the laser sintering technique for mass manufacture and there will likely be a drop in printer costs. Combined with the increasing availability of low-cost 3D scanners, it may not be long before consumers readily have the technology to scan any off-the-shelf product and print a replica at home.
As the cost of 3D printers gets ever closer to that of household inkjet printers, one of the biggest potential IP issues surrounding the 3D printers is in the manufacture of items for personal use, like household consumer products, especially given the current private use exemptions under patent law and design law. The key question will be who is liable for infringement and to what extent. Some IP law may be difficult to enforce, and so rights holders may have to identify what is worth protecting in different ways.
The risk of 3D printing being used to manufacture counterfeit goods is also of concern, particularly since such goods may not meet the same safety requirements as original products. Further concerns arise in fields such as medical devices in which counterfeit products are unlikely to have been produced in clean environments.
IP law may need to be shaped to control the role of the manufacturers and distributors of the 3D printers. As the 3D printers hit the mass market, it will likely cause a legal minefield not only in patents but also in copyright, trademarks and design rights.