|SLA 3D Printer used by Rabbit|
Whatever object you can think of, as long as it’s not giant-sized, can be 3D printed these days. NASA is sending 3D printers onboard spacecraft, to print spare parts if and when they’re needed. Nike is 3D printing prototypes for bespoke footwear, having partnered with IT company HP, and in the US, the first 3D printed pills have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.
3D technology is already being used for things like hip and knee replacements. Dental technicians are using them to design highly customised dental implants, bridges, crowns and dentures, and shells for hearing aids can be very accurately moulded to a patient’s ear, thanks to a 3D printer.
Advanced 3D printing technologies have become accessible due to the expiration of key patents held by the original pioneers of the 3D printing industry, releasing the monopolistic control over printing processes that have traditionally been confined to the industrial or healthcare fields.
Quick to seize the opportunity, 3D printer manufacturers like MakerBot and Ultimaker have paved the way for accessible 3D printing, and prices for these printers range from R37 500 to R84 995. A MakerBot Replicator Z18, which can build an object of up to 12 inches in width and depth, and up to 18 inches in height, is selling on Takealot.com for R133 000.
DionWired, meanwhile, is selling a XYZ 3D printer for 9990 ZAR, and is soon bringing out the Da Vinci 1.0 AiO, which can scan and replicate objects up to six inches high, which will retail at 14 990 ZAR.
The intellectual property implications, of course, are far reaching. Sized up against the rapid evolution of 3D technology, and its quickly expanding accessibility, IP laws globally are simply inadequate, and there’s a dilemma: How can designs, patents and copyrights be protected, while allowing 3D printers to positively impact society? For example, one of these impacts could be the ability of a rural clinic to 3D print a prosthetic knee for a patient, instead of waiting weeks for it to be manufactured and transported back from a laboratory.
Sinal Govender, an associate in the IP practice at Norton Rose Fulbright points out that emergency medical equipment, including syringes and needles, can potentially be 3D printed, which would greatly relieve the scarcity of these resources in outlying areas. “Service delivery could be taken to another level, and the costs of manufacturing and transport could be significantly reduced,” she says.
If you’re a designer whose protected products are being flagrantly pirated via a 3D printer, however, it’s another story. And consider the fact that guns can potentially be 3D printed, as well as illegal drugs. Like all technology today, 3D printers can be applied to positive outcomes, as well as negative ones.
This illustrates the imperative to find a balance in the IP law concerning 3D printers, that serves to protect creative ideas and control the reproduction of harmful objects, but doesn’t stifle the enormously beneficial potential of 3D printing in areas like education and medicine, both rights entrenched in the Constitution, says Govender.
“The 3D printing world involves all aspects of IP, including copyright, patents, designs, and trademarks, so it’s a complex legal landscape to navigate, and laws and regulations haven’t caught up with this new technology, either in South Africa or elsewhere. Various industries are currently debating the issue, and we may see each industry submitting their individual concerns so that the legislation can be updated and amended. The fact remains, all IP rights owners should be taking particular care to ensure that their IP is protected in an environment where it’s increasingly easy to infringe it,”she says.
We all know about theft of software off the internet. Well, 3D printing can actually manifest the product or object itself. We are only beginning to see the applications of this technology, thus the law needs to apply itself with equal fervour if creative ideas are to be protected in future, while allowing technology to change the world for the better.