At the beginning of last month (9th October) a US patent (No. 8286236) was granted to Intellectual Ventures (Washington, USA). This patent is for a ‘manufacturing control system’ and within the copious patent claims it directly references additive manufacturing as well as specific AM processes along with CNC and other manufacturing processes.
The patent, it has been claimed by some, is a bad thing for 3D printing and I do not wholly disagree. But I am not convinced it is all bad either. To be honest, I tend to find the issues this patent throws up — Digital Rights Management (DRM), Intellectual Property (IP), Litigation and so forth the more tedious side of 3D printing. But they are very real issues, they do have consequences on the whole sector and it demands debate.
So what does this patent actually do? Essentially, it points to a new control system that can be applied to a 3D printer (or any manufacturing system that accepts 3D data) to prevent the production of unauthorized 3D designs. The 3D printer can monitor the 3D files it processes and reject anything without an authorisation code, that’s to say it will ‘refuse’ to print the file.
There are obvious pro’s and cons to this — IP rights and 3D printing have been debated for some time most notably around the effects of piracy and how to control it. DRM however, is a highly controversial subject that generally attracts derision and resentment from many 3D printing community members as hackable and therefore unenforceable. For professional 3D printer users and for the hobbyist, I would tend to agree that this is probably true as they have the under-the-hood knowledge to find ways around such controls. For the general consumer, currently this is not such an issue as there are so few of them, however numbers are set to increase and would it really be such a bad thing to have controls applied? There are also postulations that DRM is an infringement of their freedom to design and print whatever they want.
My personal opinions on this — considering the “not quite 3D printed gun” story and the like — is that measured control is not a bad thing. We all know the down sides to piracy, and if this is a step in the right direction here too then all well and good IMO. Furthermore, for the printing of replacement parts and so on — specifically those that need materials qualification and engineering data to be retained (unapologetically referring you here and here again), then this system applies a safety measure that I can buy in to completely. However, it is highly unlikely that this patented manufacturing control system was developed altruistically, Intellectual Ventures is a company with no direct connection to the 3D printing sector and I suspect the primary motivation is simply $$$. That said, the goal will be to license this system to 3D printer vendors, who have the opportunity to implement the system in the right way and for the right reasons.