May 30, 2013

3D Printing IP - Is a Star Trek Replicator in our near future?

Most of us have heard about 3D printing - the ability to "print" or manufacture a three dimensional object from a computer file. What was once an expensive process is becoming more mainstream as costs drop. "Additive manufacturing" (a term some believe is more descriptive of the technology) has moved beyond developing industrial prototypes to being pursued by the biotech and medical communities at warp speed. Doctors are using the technology and data from individual patients to print 3D organ models before an operation to better understand the personal physical nuances of the procedure, and some universities are partnering with hospitals to create medical devices that would be resorbed in the body. It's easy to see how the public could join Star Trek fans and soon envision walking up to an ATM-like device (a Replicator) and ordering whatever they want - if the business and legal minds can agree how.

What are the legal and IP ramifications about this new process? To be determined. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) held a meeting on April 25 to better understand the technology. The first 3D printing patent was granted in 1977, so the technology is in the public domain. With such a potentially pervasive technology, hopefully a consensus roadmap for addressing the intellectual property issues (including regulatory approvals from the FDA and other agencies) will be forthcoming. Several IP firms in the U.S. and EU already have these issues on their radar.

Any new technology can challenge the IP community; let's hope we don't retard the advancement of 3D printing - and disappoint Gene Roddenberry.

The author is with The CECON Group, Inc, which provides science and engineering experts in a multitude of disciplines, such as biotechnology, pharmaceutical, materials engineering, chemistry, and medical devices.

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