Additive manufacturing (or 3D printing, as it is more popularly known) may be a disruptive force in manufacturing over the next few years, opening doors to new competition. It also provides flexibility for established companies, by providing means to quickly make prototypes during R&D, or make small production runs of lower demand items.

The 3D printing industry was worth 2.2 billion in 2012, and is estimated to have grown by 28% this year. This fledgling industry is predicted to see even greater growth in 2014. IP owners should act now to position themselves to take advantage of new opportunities.

Intellectual property rights holders should become aware of the risks and secure the rights they have, but also look at other creative ways to discourage unauthorized 3D printing.

While the technology is changing today, your intellectual property rights can last for decades. With just a few small steps, you can shore up your IP rights to prevent newcomers from exploiting your ideas. And with a little imagination, you can use your IP portfolio to position yourself to take advantage of new opportunities.

5 Ways to Protect Your Innovations

  • Utility Patents

Utility patents protect the functionality of an invention, and generally provide the best protection. But competitors may be able to use 3D printing technology to design around a narrow patent. A well-written patent will be robust enough to encompass changes you see coming, and prevent others from blocking your own path to future innovations.

  • Design Patents

Design patents protect the aesthetics of an object. Because 3D printers can be used to make a reproduction of an object, design patents are becoming increasingly important. Design patents can protect the components in a system, or the entire system.

  • Monitoring

IP rights don’t have much value if they aren’t enforced, but they can’t be enforced if you don’t know who is infringing. While counterfeit goods may continue to come from overseas, 3D printing allows more things to be made anywhere – even in your own backyard. Broadening your focus will allow you to fully protect your rights.

  • Trade Secret Protection

3D printing can be used to complement traditional manufacturing processes. While traditional manufacturing offers economies of scale, 3D printing may be more efficient for smaller production runs. If your business model is changing to embrace 3D printing as an in-house means of prototyping or manufacturing, you must consider who will be gaining access to confidential information and how you can protect your trade secrets. If you opt to use an outside 3Dprinting service to make prototypes or small production runs, then confidentiality agreements are even more important.

  • Licensing

If you don’t plan to get in the 3D printing business, you may want to partner with a 3D printing service for smaller production runs. A well-drafted license agreement should allow you to maintain quality control over products while opening up a revenue stream.

Looking Forward

We’ve already seen a digital revolution in the entertainment business. The music industry was caught on its heels, but the television and film industry took note, and flourished by using technological solutions to leverage their legal protections. With forward thinking, you can position your company to do the same.