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What could 3D printing mean for consumer products?

3D printing is exciting technology that enables users to easily create prototypes, intricate designs, highly customised items and small production runs that would not be possible using traditional manufacturing methods.

April 2013

While we wait for home 3D printers to become more sophisticated, the public has increasing access to “copy shops” providing 3D printing services. Equally, there are plenty of online offerings1. These services are being used to print a huge array of 3D objects, including:

  • jewellery;
  • gadgets (e.g. phone cases);
  • home décor (e.g. mugs, vases);
  • art (e.g. small-scale sculptures);
  • toys (e.g. action figures, chess pieces, toy bricks);
  • glasses frames;

Spare parts for products might be printed e.g. a replacement vacuum cleaner nozzle. Equally, consumers could use the technology to replace relatively simple medical devices such as shoe orthotics.

deviceWhen objects are copied without permission, there is a distinct possibility of infringing rights. This has always been the case with any form of manufacturing. We explore this in more detail in our 3D Printer’s Guide to Intellectual Property Rights.

The advent of 3D printers has the potential to significantly reduce the need for traditional manufacturing processes and the overheads that go with those processes e.g. factory costs and transportation costs. The current costs of 3D printing using certain materials are not prohibitive, such that the possibility of manufacturing is opened up to a wider group. With this relatively new form of cheap and accessible manufacturing come some key threats for rights holders:

  • For counterfeiters, the use of 3D printing on a mass scale will allow them to manufacture the goods in their home market thereby reducing shipping costs and, in some cases, avoiding customs seizures. Many countries allow businesses to notify their rights to customs authorities. These authorities carry out controls and have an essential role in fighting the trade in counterfeit goods. The EU Council recently reported that between 2009 and 2011, the number of cases of detentions of infringing goods by customs increased from 44,000 to 91,000 reaching 115 million articles in 2011. The estimated value of the equivalent genuine products was nearly 1.3 billion euro in 20112. If infringing goods are printed within country borders, this level of protection is bypassed.
  • The ability for the public to produce their own articles, without purchasing them direct from retailers. Increasingly, we are seeing file sharing sites whereby the public can share CAD files. As the technology becomes more accessible, consumers will use those files to create objects for themselves.For example, if consumers are able to print toys easily and cheaply (e.g. a Lego man (protected by a registered trade mark)), why would they pay for the genuine article?
  • toyAside from the economic downsides, there are reputational issues attaching to the second risk. Objects may be produced without consideration of legislation governing standards, such as toy safety regulations. For example, where a lego brick is copied, the ultimate consumer would not have the assurance that the material used to print that brick is suitable for use by children (for example, has it undergone toxicity testing?). Also, the lack of packaging means the consumer would not have instructions for use for more complex items e.g. spare parts. This will concern businesses because of the potential safety threat posed to their consumers but also because they may be faced with legal action (whether ill conceived or otherwise), should copies be mistaken for genuine products.

If the popularity of 3D printing in the home mushrooms, users of the technology will behave less like traditional “consumers”, with the capacity to manufacture. However, in many cases businesses will struggle to persuade a court that use of the technologies in the home amounts to infringement (see our 3D Printer’s Guide to Intellectual Property Rights). Given this, we may well see businesses lobbying for changes to the private use defences.

So how should businesses adapt their models to deal with the challenges of this technology? We have learnt from the digitisation of music that one of the most effective ways to limit piracy is to ensure the public has access to a wide variety of good value licensed products. To counter the loss of sales of physical products, businesses may wish to sell CAD files embodying their designs to the public at a reasonable cost. For example, if a consumer wishes to replace a vacuum cleaner part, in future he might log on to the manufacturer’s website and download the CAD file to print the part himself. Making files available in this way gives businesses the opportunity to accompany the files with safety warnings and printing tips (e.g. what material should be used etc.). Most importantly, it gives the business an opportunity to monetise its rights.

digitalWhilst the licensing of CAD files and other blueprints represents the best way for businesses to retain control of production and monetise their rights, it may not be the only way. It remains to be seen whether use of technologogies that allow domestic manufacture of goods will be covered by the private use exceptions discussed above. If the popularity of 3D printing in the home mushrooms, users of the technology may be seen more as manufacturers and less as traditional 'consumers'. This may prompt a review of the private use exceptions – potentially opening the door to enforcement action by rights holders against individuals.

If you have any questions on this article please contact us.


2Commission staff working document


"The advent of 3D printers has the potential to significantly reduce the need for traditional manufacturing processes and the overheads that go with those processes e.g. factory costs and transportation costs."