3D Printing

Is that the sound of 3D printed IP infringement?

I have written and spoken extensively about 3D printing away from control, which means the ability to 3D print a part or product without anyone knowing about it or being able to control it.  Although Gartner does not use this term, 3D printing away from control seems to underlie its prediction that “By 2018, 3D printing will result in the loss of at least $100 billion per year in intellectual property globally.”

IP infringement
Image: Shutterstock

Some of those losses will result from infringement of IP rights, namely, utility and design patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets.  Some of those losses will result from reverse engineering part designs.  IP infringement violates the law.  Reverse engineering does not; it is perfectly legal if done properly.  And as long as the reverse engineered design is tweaked so it is not covered by any IP rights, parts 3D printed from the design do not infringe IP rights.  Even if the reverse engineered part infringes IP rights, it hardly matters if the entire process happens way from control.  No one knows about and no one can control it.

Digital rights management (aka DRM) is a way of fighting illegal IP infringement, legal reverse engineering, and 3D printing away from control. If the digital blueprint is locked up or locked away, it can’t be copied and parts can’t be 3D printed without permission, or so the theory goes. Some people see DRM as an arms race in which IP infringers and legitimate reverse engineers will always be a few steps ahead. I have written about how 3D scanning is the Achilles Heel of IP protection for 3D printing because it makes an end run around DRM and is a form of legitimate reverse engineering. A research team at the University of California Irvine recently demonstrated another legitimate, perfectly legal DRM endrun.

How did they do it?

The team, led by Professor Mohammad Al Faruque, director of UCI’s Advanced Integrated Cyber-Physical Systems lab, used a smartphone to record the operation of a Material Extrusion printer as it printed a part.  By reverse engineering the recorded sounds, the team recreated the part with almost 90% accuracy.

To prevent this type of reverse engineering, Professor Al Faruque suggested outlawing smartphones from the vicinity of 3D printers and mixing the real sounds of the operating 3D printer with white noise, to prevent the recording of a clean signal for reverse engineering.  In practice, such precautions will probably work only if the machine owner does not want to reverse engineer the part.  Only machine owners who do not want to reverse engineer a part will outlaw recording devices and install white noise generators near 3D printers.  If they want to reverse engineer, they will be first in line at Best Buy, shopping for microphones and video cameras.

Machine operators who want to reverse engineer digital blueprints locked up by DRM could take this technique to new levels, using sensitive devices to record the sounds, vibrations, and images of operating 3D printers.  If the machine operator does not care about IP rights and is operating away from control, those signals can be used to reverse engineer the digital blueprint for the part without regard to whether the part 3D printed from the reverse engineered blueprint infringes any IP rights.  If the machine owner does respect IP rights or is operating openly, the reverse engineered digital blueprint can probably be tweaked to avoid the part designer’s IP.  In either case, the machine owner makes an end run around DRM and IP rights.  Touchdown!  The moral of the story:  no digital blueprint is secure if you just listen carefully enough.


Featured image: ZDNet