Expected to be a $35.6 billion industry by 2024, 3D printing has a significant role to play in the production of goods. This was the case before the current Covid-19 crisis, but is likely to continue in spite of it.
We are already seeing companies use 3D printing technology (or additive manufacturing, to use the correct technical term) in the Midlands. For example, Siemens has invested £27 million in building Britain’s largest 3D printing facility in Worcester. In the aerospace sector, Rolls-Royce has been using the technology to produce the next generation of engines. Meanwhile, a number of so-called “print farms” have sprung up across the region, offering 3D printing services to compete with long-established contract manufacturers employing traditional manufacturing technologies.
With Covid-19 setting a challenge for business, in particular in relation to their supply chain when many companies are struggling to get goods out of China, or to satisfy an increased demand for medical equipment, 3D printing offers an alternative. This is because it allows the manufacture of new products with very short lead times, given that all that is required is a 3D printer and a printable digital representation of the product. Delays usually encountered when setting up traditional production lines, such as those arising from tooling, need not be suffered when 3D printing. This means that products can be manufactured quickly and be easily customised to the end user. 3D printing is also making its mark on the Medtech industry. At a time when the country has needed vital medical equipment, even amateurs with 3D printers have been helping in the efforts to provide protective equipment to fight the shortage.
Normally, when companies innovate, they look to defend their innovation through the filing of patents, designs and trade marks. This is vital for growing market share and commercialising their invention or brand. This is equally important when there is diversification, something we are seeing more and more of now as companies reconfigure their innovation to tackle the biggest problems caused by Covid-19, particularly in relation to medical equipment. With companies working to develop their own technologies to meet the need for medical products, they must ensure that the manufactured products satisfy quality, safety and regulatory requirements. 3D printing may help with this but, if you are creating a design from scratch, it still takes time and you may encounter issues that another designer has already solved. So, to avoid reinventing the wheel, wouldn’t it be good to ‘borrow’ someone else’s digital blueprints? Technically the sharing of a 3D printable file is easy – all that is required is a simple file transfer – but file owners are understandably reluctant to share the fruits of their investment and hard work. Perhaps there is a balance to be had between protecting your own investment in Covid-related technologies and also doing your bit to help other manufacturers for the greater good.
This means that intellectual property (IP) protection still has a key role to play in the 3D-printed, post-Covid world. There are a number of reasons for this, besides just protecting your investment. There is an impact on funding: uncertainties over market conditions of course inhibit investment in innovation. Financing constraints naturally increase. This means that potential investors may require a positively examined patent application, or even a granted patent, before providing funds. One of the things companies can look at is accelerating the examination of patent rights to expedite their Covid-19 patent applications through to grant and, ultimately, secure the investment needed to get the product to market.
Even if companies do strengthen their IP during the pandemic, this does not preclude them doing their bit for the greater good. Take sharing a 3D printable file, for example: temporary and/or purpose-limited licences could be granted solely for the purpose of supplying clearly defined products to fight the current crisis. Realistically, innovators are perhaps more likely to share innovation with third parties in jurisdictions with a robust and sophisticated IP system, and when are confident that their own IP is in place, because they know this sharing will not be detrimental to their long-term investment. As such, strong IP is helpful in overcoming reluctance in sharing, given that it provides a level of control to ensure quality and safety and to ensure the goodwill of IP right holders cannot be abused after the crisis has abated.
Intellectual property is valuable asset and while the instinct may be to preserve costs by delaying protection at the current time, there are creative ways to still obtain protection and use this protection, while helping to fight the battle against Covid-19.
Source: Marks & Clerk
Image: Phillip Cupitt, Partner, Marks & Clerk, Birmingham Office