IP lawyer: Why 3D printing will lead to 'thermonuclear wars'

IP lawyer: Why 3D printing will lead to 'thermonuclear wars'

Summary: Remember when every smartphone firm were fighting in court over patents and intellectual property? 3D printers will be at the center of the next tech "thermonuclear war."

A 3D-printed U.S. Capitol. How appropriate, seeing as laws governing the technology may end up here one day. (Image: CBS Interactive)

NEW YORK — A leading intellectual property lawyer warned that the 3D printing market will likely go "thermonuclear," akin to the smartphone wars between Apple and Samsung, and others. 

John Hornick, with Washington D.C.-headquartered law firm Finnegan, told attendees at the Inside 3D Printing conference in New York on Friday that with the "democratization of manufacturing," where the lines between who is a manufacturer, retailer, and user, the notion of intellectual property becomes "increasingly relevant." 

"I expect that in time, there will be a lot of IP infringement lawsuits and all type of patent trademarks," he said. "The size and scale of this situation will be huge."

Like the smartphone wars, as soon as the market capitalization figure is big enough to protect intellectual property at any costs, he says that's when the 3D printing "wars" will begin.

The bigger picture, he said, is the whole concept of intellectual property meshing with 3D printers will disrupt things on a massive scale, which could rival that of the Industrial Revolution.

As 3D printing begins to take off, ordinary people in their own homes will be able to build products that bypass the world's major suppliers that could lead to massive losses by global industries. To that end, Gartner predicts that there will $100 billion in intellectual property losses by 2018. 

"It may be difficult to identify the infringement, and it will be impossible or even impractical to enforce the laws." — John Hornick

 "The disruption is on a mass-production scale," he said, because although companies have the advantage of speed and scale — in that they can make the products faster and in mass quantities — this reduces the control companies have on a game-changing level.

"We all know that on a micro-level, 3D printing offers a lot of advantages — only need one machine, can make a lot of design, greener technology... on the macro level, we have facially inconsistent situations."

At the same time, 3D printing can cause a disruption of traditional manufacturing models. It lends itself much more to regional manufacturing. He said with ordinary people printing in-house, by service bureaus, in their homes and in their workplaces, there's no need for companies to outsource or ship offshore.

"Anyone with a 3D printer with the sophistication can bypass the traditional supply change," he said. "It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be good enough." He cited a study from Michigan Tech University that home users may be able to save as much as $2,000 each year by making just two-dozen simple things with a 3D printer. 

That alone, he said, could put "people out of work."

"One more thing to have disruption, and that is the ability to do all of these things away from control," he said. 

In the longer term there will be major economic disruption, he said. "It may be difficult to identify the infringement, and it will be impossible or even impractical to enforce the laws."

The innovators and others believe intellectual property is not really fostering innovation and because technology develops so fast, there isn't a need for rights protection to last as long. 

The bottom line? He said people that are against intellectual are only against it until they need it — and that's when they are in favor of it.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Tech Industry

Lyndsey Gilpin

About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She writes about the people behind some of tech's most creative innovations and in-depth features on innovation and sustainability.

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  • I'll believe it when I see it

    Dreams vs reality as it is shaped to be. Especially as the article ignores obvious factors also related to our current economy...

    We may not have a chicken in every pot, or a person in every home, but the cheap 3d printer will be in every home...
  • Not the purpose of IP

    Preventing people from building their own stuff is not the original purpose of IP, and is nowhere near it. IP is supposed to only prevent people from using an invention for business profit for a short time. Take this example: let's say I find out Panda Express's orange chicken recipe and cook it for my family one night for dinner. Should IP laws make that illegal? If you said yes, I can suggest a location you can move to that you'd LOVE! China. It's communist, just like you! This is America, land of the fee and home of the slave... or something like that.
    • ...

      While I agree with your points, I think you have the communist and capitalist approach mixed up. There's absolutely no point in having IP laws in a proper communist society.
    • In theory

      In practice, copyright and patent law (and both may apply here) will be used in whatever manner holders think will give them the biggest advantage (which is why they should be narrow). And it's dead certain that lobbyists will be out in force to give their clients the biggest bang for the buck.
      John L. Ries
  • There just ain't a lot of important plastic-only stuff!

    How many folks are going to have one printer for plastic, another for metal, etc? And then the tech savvy to put it all together.

    "Hey, let's print and assemble our own network-capable color laser printer! We can download plans from this website about how to create the microprocessor, the power supply, the Ethernet connectors, etc! Then we just have to write our own software to make it all work! Why the heck should we pay someone $200 when we can 3D print it ourselves?"

    "Now how the heck do we 3D-print a clean room and the robots to put the miniscule parts together and a wave-soldering machine to solder all the tiny parts to the circuit board? And how do we get a 3D printer to perform quality control checks on the subassemblies?"
    • Yeah, really

      I mean, a 3-D printer in every home would decimate the market for Warhammer figurines, but I'm just not seeing how it kills off much else. I'm trying to think about items around the home that might be good targets for 3-D printers, and I'm coming up with stuff like dinnerware. But here's the thing: plastic cups and plates are already significantly cheaper than glass and ceramic, but people still buy glass and ceramic dinnerware because the stuff's just plain nicer to hold, look at and eat off of.

      I'm not going to be printing furniture: if you think assembling IKEA furniture is maddening, try putting something together that was 3-D printed into 1000 small, interlocking pieces?

      You'll never 3-d print a laptop or tablet (it's far too complicated internally) though maybe you could 3-D print a custom computer case?

      Maybe I lack imagination, or vision, but I just don't see 3-D printing replacing dedicated factories and assembly lines with dozens of different supply chains for hundreds of different materials.
      • Plastic breaks - printer replaces it

        This is not about creating full electronic items, although some items are designed to accept electronic assemblies. Look through some 3D communities to see what they share, or better yet: what is most downloaded.

        Many items have plastic parts. When these parts break, some people throw it out, some people duct tape it, and some people fix it. This is another way to fix it. This could also customize a part (texture, color, logo/name/face image) that didn't need replaced.
  • Rick's right

    Just about everything we use these days depends on advanced materials. Those are expensive, complicated materials that take many manufacturing steps as well as highly-refined source stocks. Making most modern products with a 3D printer will be like making a car out of plaster-of-paris. You might get the shape right, but it's not going anywhere.

    There will be interesting things that come from 3D printing in time. That will create all kinds of jobs making the printers and support materials. That IP lawyer should be worried about all the blacksmithing jobs that have disappeared in the last 100 years.
    • The cheap ones are what is going to be controversial

      I don't think a lot of people will be printing their own automobiles, or even their own guns; but clothing and other items made from relatively inexpensive materials will be another matter.
      John L. Ries
    • Come to think of it...

      ...3D printing might well make blacksmithing a growing occupation again (fabrication is what blacksmiths do best).
      John L. Ries
  • $2000 a year...hmm

    I'd like to see that list of common uses that could reap that sort of windfall. I bet there is more money to be saved by consumers (and jobs lost in manufacturing) if everyone instead bought a Vitamix blender and replaced all processed foods in their diet. But that hasn't happened, has it?
  • 3D printing is NOT fast...

    Especially when compared to custom machines to stamp out parts.

    The stamper is about 20 times faster...

    Injection molding is about the same - but is faster by volume, something on the order of 1000 parts every 2 minutes. 3D printing- 10 parts per hour...for simple parts. All day for others.
    • Faster...

      ...so far. Give it time, perhaps two years...
      Tony Burzio
      • No - it won't be faster...

        Moving a print head is always slow. A stamp does the entire piece in parallel, as does injection molding.

        The advantage for 3D printing is that it takes much less time to setup. But it will always be slower.

        It is no different than using a printer.

        To setup and make one copy is easy, and might take 10 minutes to print a 100 page book.

        But to try and print 10,000 books that way would take 9 weeks of continuous printing... only takes two or three days with a large scale printing press - and they would be bound in a nice cover as well.
        • All your points are certainly valid.

          But 3d printing being slow won't stop people from printing simple household items, which will likely get more complex at the technology matures. After all I can hit the print button, go to work and it will be done by the time I come home. I certainly can't do anything on a massive scale, but how many consumers need items on that scale? The more 3d printers there are, more and more can be produced. It'll be slow, but massively parallel and customizable if the majority of households eventually end up with them.
          Sam Wagner
          • MC_z hit on the key point

            "advanced materials"

            We hear the talk here of "plastic", but there are so many different plastics for so different applications that there's really no way a 3D printer will be printing out everything you need, or even most of it.

            Right now I can get a durable, food safe, semi rigid, plastic spatula for about $4.00 that will last for years

            I doubt you could print out something just as good for even twice the price.

            People tend to forget the multitude of materials used, all developed for specific purposes, and also far different in how it is processed into those items.

            The Cube can print in either ABS or PLS plastic, and only up to 10" cubed.
          • BTW - Don't get me wrong

            I've used a friend's system to create parts for a Halloween costume, so it has applications and was/will be very useful, still, it was parts for a costume, nothing more.

            It wasn't like I was printing dinnerware, or anything along those lines.
  • Humm - could it be worse than an ordinary printer, though?

    Humm - could it be worse than an ordinary printer, though? What IP laws could cover 3D, but not 2D printing?
  • "The end is coming", lol

    A good article but a little conservative, on the effects of new technologies such as 3d printing.
    3D printing together with other future technologies such as energy producing and storage devices, a.i. etc, will demolish anything we know and "love" about economy, society, work habits and political systems.
    You talk about intellectual property rights having in mind corporations and businesses, banks and markets, lol, my precious! When 3d printing reaches a stage between the present gizmo-thing and that seen in sci-fi,
    corporations, profit, money, governments, religions, authorities will have such a significance as the 2344566th drop of water in the Pacific Ocean.
    If we are lucky to survive the transition to this state, without a devastating war(this being the only thing that could cause such a war; important people know it very well and it freaks them out) we will fulfill our destiny and dreams as a species. But with much comfort, inertia emerges that degenerates to decadence and desintegration.
    So forget about the financial crisis, the energy crisis, the ecological disaster; the biggest problem that future generations will face is the abundance problem. They will have to force themselves to action to not die from rust and uselessness
    • That's maybe going a bit far . . .

      That's maybe going a bit far. The variety of shapes we can make using traditional techniques is practically limitless; all this really does it make things a bit easier to make at home, rather than having to make things in a factory setting or buying a personal lathe and drill press.

      The economy will adjust, as it always has. This isn't mankind's first large scale change in how we manufacture things.

      Society and political systems will likely not change all that much - why would they change merely because we can print things in 3D?

      Work habits - well those constantly change because of technology. Industrial robots probably changed that more than 3D printing ever will.

      "the biggest problem that future generations will face is the abundance problem"

      Thanks to industrial robots, we can produce practically anything we want in large quantities without the involvement of humans. As far as I'm concerned, we're already in an era with an abundance problem. My late grandfather lamented that factory robots killed a lot of jobs.

      So we're basically making industrial robots obsolete now. I'm okay with industrial robots dying from rust and uselessness ;).