Last month, I had lunch with a friend who is an in-house lawyer who oversees intellectual property (IP) litigation for a diversfied international manfucturer.  During our lunch, we discussed the impact that 3-D printing will have on the marketplace over the next few decades.  The business and legal implications are wide ranging as some believe that it will revolutionize manufacturing and others believe it will create a “wild west” where intellectual property is stolen and product misidentification will explode.   

As an introduction, 3-D printers can print three-dimensional objects.  A must-read article in The Economist describes the current state of the technology: 

“Even though the technology is improving, the finish and durability of some printed items can still fall short of what producers require. And nor can 3D printers crank out zillions of identical parts at low cost, as mass-production lines can. Nevertheless, 3D printers have their virtues, which is why they are starting to be used by some of the world’s biggest manufacturers, such as Airbus, Boeing, GE, Ford and Siemens.”

 At the moment, many manufacturers are using 3-D technology to build custom or low-volume items, such as replacement parts. 

Others suggest that 3-D printing may create serious problems for manufacturers going forward.  Here is an article from Bloomberg Businessweek discussing what it could mean for business in China.  Some business leaders in China call it a “gimmick” while others believe that it will not adversely impact manufacturers.

As with most things, the legal commentary is all over the map.  I have read articles stating that 3-D printing will jeopardize intellectual property rights as people use their home computers to copy products.  Others raise product liability concerns such as when people make solid models of products and then are injured due to a design flaw.  It is hard to tell whether 3-D printing will be the next “big” thing or just another “legal crisis” that subsides. 

I would be interested in knowing if any of our readers have encountered 3-D printing issues and whether there are specific legal aspects that you would like us to address.  Please email us at ManufacturingLawBlog@rc.com.  If there is enough interest, we would be happy to put together a webinar or conference on the subject.