How to understand intellectual property in the additive manufacturing era
Shell has recently produced a polymer seal cover for a large mooring buoy using additive manufacturing. Although the news was exciting, it sparked curiosity among professionals in this space who wondered about the implications Shell’s achievement on intellectual property (IP) rights going forward.
Before we dive into what Shell really did, let’s refresh our memory of the additive manufacturing industry.
Additive manufacturing was invented and first patented by Charles Hull in 1983 [US patent: US 4,575,330]. While the technology has evolved today, most modern printers still use Hull’s basic principle – and leverage a variety of materials to push the boundaries of science and engineering.
Presently, with ongoing upgrades to the technology, two things are expected: (i) access to the technology will improve with smaller, more affordable printers hitting the consumer market, (ii) demand for the technology will increase, not just among consumers but also among commercial users.
We first saw this in the automotive segment with Mercedes leveraging additive manufacturing to delight customers who owned and took pride in maintaining legacy vehicles. The company produced a spark plug for its 300 SL Coupé (W 198 model series).
Not long after that, Porsche announced that it would use additive manufacturing to produce pistons for the high-performance engine of its 911 GT2 RS. The company’s decision was driven by the fact that additively manufactured pistons weighed ten percent less than the forged series production pistons and could feature an integrated and closed cooling duct in its crown that could not have been produced by conventional methods.
While Mercedes used additive manufacturing to service customers, Porsche’s team leaned on the technology because it helped them think outside the box.
And while those are great examples of Hull’s patent being used effectively to create new innovations, it does put existing patents at risk – to some degree. Let’s revisit Shell’s example to understand how.
Shell has invested significantly in additive manufacturing technology in recent years to avoid its business from stalling as a result of a lack of spares that are critical to its operations. It used its experience with the technology to replace the polymer seal cover on the mooring buoy of an offshore structure. What’s thrilling is that they made the replacement without shutting down production and without having to perform costly, complex, and perilous heavy-lifting at sea.
What would have taken 16 weeks if produced using conventional methods took a mere 2 weeks (and resulted in a 90 percent savings in maintenance costs).
What some news outlets didn’t mention was that despite having the knowhow, Shell didn’t do the job themselves. They collaborated with an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) qualified to supply 3D printed components – which means, they didn’t infringe on any IP.
The company has also clarified that, when an OEM is not available, and IP laws permitting, Shell could reverse engineer parts and have a commercial supplier print it from a 3D model, or, in emergency cases, and when IP is not an issue, Shell could use its equipment and experience to print spare parts in-house.
Law Firm Arnold & Siedsma who is fairly knowledgeable about IP from an additive manufacturing standpoint, believes that Hull and his technology have changed IP forever. The technology makes production of parts easy – without investing in expensive molds or tools that standard processes would require. As a result, infringing on IP is easier now. Of course, in many cases, a commercial-grade 3D printer would be required, which does raise the bar by a notch.
The firm believes that IP law needs to be amended to account for additive manufacturing. Currently, for example, with the technology becoming easily accessible, IP-holders might find themselves enforcing IP rights against many individual small players instead of one big factory that produces infringing products. Further, in many cases, IP laws (as they stand now) allow for copies to be made for private use.
“Selling such AM manufactured products is not allowed under these laws, but buying one product and making a few spare products would in theory be allowable under current practice,” said a representative of the law firm.
What’s really challenging for those defending their IP today is the fact that additive manufacturing no longer requires design files from the original producer. Thanks to high-end 3D scanning cameras, parts can be scanned in high definition and converted to an electronic file that can be used by a consumer or commercial-grade additive manufacturing printer.
To be fair, from an insider’s perspective, the challenges with IP are a teething issue that the industry has to face – and overcome. It’s not going to be something that hinders progress. If patents are infringed, for legitimate reasons, it should be a discussion between the companies engaged in the business and come to an amicable resolution. Nobody, after all, wants to have anyone stall operations simply because parts aren’t in stock or not available.
In Shell’s case, what the company did actually avoided putting its people in harm’s way. It’s important to remember that when you think about the issue of IP in the context of additive manufacturing. Truthfully, this technology was held back for too long having been introduced in the 1980s – the pace of change in the coming months will be significant and professionals in this space must be prepared to welcome those changes with open arms.