3D printing is becoming an increasingly versatile and commercially attractive tool. The technology has many applications beyond its roots in prototyping and it is being used to create products such as clothes, cars, musical instruments and even human ears. As the number of applications grows so too has the number of materials that can be used including metals, plastics, ceramics and wax to name a few. These are just some of the effects of a technology which is developing rapidly; and this development is in no small part thanks to innovative funding streams that have allowed many innovative companies to enter the market and push the limits of what is achievable. Retailers will have to reassess their place in a world where businesses can manufacture products more cheaply and consumers could soon be manufacturing goods with 3D printers at home.
In 2013, Dita von Teese rocked the fashion world when she wore a 3D printed gown, and in December 2014, Royal Mail partnered with a 3D printer manufacturer to offer 3D printing services direct to customers for products such as key rings and miniature post boxes. Lego is considering the option of customers being able to manufacture their products at home. While Amazon is considering the local distribution benefits and recently applied for a patent on mobile 3D printing services. This idea could see Amazon purchasing 3D design software from suppliers instead of the goods, and then manufacture products in a delivery van or even while en route to the customer.
The future of 3D printing is ambitious and it is expected to follow a similar path to 2D printers, which were common place in businesses before becoming a common household item. The cost of a home 3D printer is currently about £1,000 but as hardware and material costs continue to fall and design software becomes readily available, retailers should consider a future where, for some products, they will sell the software to manufacture goods at home rather than the goods themselves. Retailers could also benefit from a reduction in supply chain costs.
It is anticipated that home 3D printing will initially be used to manufacture spare parts intended for personal use but beyond this, the limits of what can be produced at a customer’s home will go as far as the technology allows. This will present many intellectual property (“IP”) issues such as: enforcement and infringement of IP rights; retailers could loose out on sales; manufacturers may be unable to enforce design protection; artists may find a new type of infringement of their works occurring; and home-users may face confusion as to what they can and can’t do legitimately with their 3D printers.
The situation has been compared to the introduction of Napster in the 90s and other file sharing systems in the music and film industries. To combat this, anyone who owns IP in 3D printer software will have to get creative with their protectionist measures and perhaps employ technical means such as Digital Rights Management (“DRM”) systems, which are used in the music industry. The problem however, is that an exact copy of the original is not being created by a 3D printer and so there are some issues as to how this could be used. One way could be to target the printer itself so they only work from DRM protected software. However, this would make these types of printers less desirable than open source printers and it is possible they could be reconfigured to support open software regardless.
Alternatively, legal measures could be taken to remove personal use exemptions that apply to IP rights at present. The key problem is that the exemptions were created for a reason: for example, so that people can repair and maintain their own products and any change to this position could have the reverse effect and curtail the development of 3D printing as a whole.
Under UK law, there is a favourable environment towards the promotion of low-cost 3D printers for personal use and this seems to be the direction the industry is heading in. If we assume the law remains unchanged, IP owners have time to think about how best to protect their IP and employ sensible, sustainable and specialised measures to achieve this. In the meantime, retailers should look at how they can benefit from the technology in product development, methods of selling and how they can capitalise on a growing home-use market by offering the printers and software for sale direct to consumers.
IP is all about new innovation – some owners, like Lego and Amazon, appear to be embracing the change and see it as an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage. It will be interesting to see how IP owners might seek to form partnerships with 3D printer manufacturers and others who have the skill and experience to appreciate the benefits of this technology so that together, the future of 3D printing at home can succeed.