Intellectual Property Lawyer Sees 3D Printing as a Game-Changer

Don Tennant
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John Hornick has been called an “evangelist” and a “popularizer” of 3D printing technology, and he readily refers to himself as an “advocate.” Yet he’s not a techie, nor is he a lobbyist for the 3D printing industry. He’s a lawyer who has immersed himself in the technology, and in its intellectual property ramifications. And in the process, he’s become one of the world’s most knowledgeable resources on the topic.

Hornick is an IP counselor and litigator with Finnegan, a global IP law firm based in Washington, D.C., and author of the book, “3D Printing Will Rock the World.” Even a cursory look into Hornick’s work in the realm of 3D printing evinces a sense that his expertise in that realm would be difficult to match. So in a recent interview, the first thing I wanted to find out was what led to this immersion in what many still see as a rather obscure field. He said it all began several years ago, when someone sent him a video of a machine that seemed to be printing out a wrench:

I thought it was probably a joke, but I sent it to some friends, and one of the guys I sent it to is the chief architect for Johns Hopkins University Hospital. He wrote back, and he said, ‘This isn’t a joke—we have doctors here who are trying to do this with human organs. It’s going to take a few years, but it’s real.’

I realized it was pretty important technology, so I started studying up on it, and I saw a lot of articles that said there are a lot of intellectual property issues related to it, but they never said what those issues are. So I decided to figure out what they are. … This technology has been around for about 30 years—it was called ‘rapid prototyping’ until fairly recently, when people started calling it ‘3D printing.’

As it turned out, my firm had done some IP work in this area over the years for various clients, but we didn’t have any kind of organization around the practice. So I decided to make this my own and formalize our practice in that area. Then I started this database to keep up with the industry, and as that grew, I realized I had enough material for a book. My interest in this field goes way, way beyond the law. So I decided to write this book, which is really about the industry as a whole.

I expressed my own view that there seems to me to be a general lack of awareness of the significance and potential of 3D printing technology, so I asked Hornick for his thoughts on why that’s the case. He said whether or not there’s a lack of awareness depends on whom you’re talking about:

There are two sides to this industry—a consumer side, and an industrial side. On the consumer side, I think most consumers are probably not very familiar with it, and if they are, they’re familiar with the machines that print out little tchotchkes like Yoda heads. But the industrial side knows this technology is out there. Every big company is using it—it they’re not using it for production, they’re using it for rapid prototyping. So it’s the general public that isn’t educated on the topic, but industry penetration and adoption are at a pretty high rate.

As for which country is currently leading the world in the adoption of 3D printing technology, Hornick said the United States is leading the world in the filing of patent applications, which is usually an indication of adoption, as well:

The U.S. files about 60 percent of the patent applications that lead to patents in this area. We have several companies based here in the United States that make the machines. Germany is also a leader; Sweden is a leader; Israel is a leader in certain areas of 3D printing. And China is making a big effort—they’re spending a lot of money to try to be an important player in this space.

What’s interesting is that Japan really is not a leader. They’ve been an industrial manufacturing leader in many areas for years—they were actually in this space in the 1990s, but then kind of got out of it. There are some companies there that are involved, but it’s really not a big part of their industry like you would expect it to be.

I asked Hornick what the biggest impediments are to the adoption of 3D printing, and he listed four:

One is speed—right now, with most of the machines that are out there, it takes a fairly long time to build a part. The larger it is, the longer it’s going to take to build it. Another thing is quality and reproducibility. If you make three parts in a row in the same machine, they might not be exactly the same; and if you make the same part in three different machines, they might not be exactly the same. So there’s a need for in-process quality control and repeatability.

Then there are design software issues. Most of the software that exists right now is geared for the 2D age—it’s not really up to the task of matching the full capability of what a 3D printer can do. The fourth would be materials. Right now there are a lot of materials available for 3D printing, but we really need hybrid materials, composite materials, so that instead of making a product with 10 or 15 different materials in it, you can make it with one or two or three materials.

3D Printing

Hornick said if there’s ever going to be a 3D printer in every home, those four problems need to be solved. But he indicated it’s only a matter of time:

You also have to have designs available for products that people need, and it has to be very, very easy to use those machines. I believe eventually, the average person will have a 3D printer in the home, but it’ll need to be as easy to use as a bread machine. You just go into an app on your smartphone and pick out a part or product you need, and you press it and it will print out. Or you may pick it up from a shop down the block. Or maybe it’s done over the Internet, and shipped to you. I think all of those things will happen.

I told Hornick I would argue that the term “3D printing” itself is an impediment, because it makes it harder than it needs to be to wrap your head around what it is, since it really gives an entirely new definition to what printing is generally understood to be. He said I’m not alone in my thinking:

There are other people who have said things like that. In the industry, there’s this division among people who want to call it ‘3D printing,’ and other people who want to call it ‘additive manufacturing’—I think that’s even worse. ‘3D printing’ at least is sexier—if I ask you whether you’d rather see my brand new 3D printer or my brand new additive manufacturing machine, you’re probably going to want to see the 3D printer. But there is this tension in the industry—some people think ‘3D printer’ isn’t a serious enough term. Maybe it’s not ideal, but I don’t know of any other better term for it right now.

Whenever I get into this discussion of whether it should be called ‘3D printing’ or ‘additive manufacturing,’ between those two, at least, I always say it should be ‘3D printing,’ because it’s sexier, and it helps to drive the adoption of the technology. People at the management and board levels in companies have heard the term, and have no problem using it. It’s the people down at the operational level, who are actually using the machines, who like to call it ‘additive manufacturing.’

I asked Hornick what the inherent limitations of 3D printing are—that is, what manufacturing outcome we can reasonably expect to be outside the realm of 3D printing technology. He said most people look at the technology as not really having manufacturing limitations:

Traditionally, we have all kinds of machines that make things, and we have to design based on whether that design can be made with existing manufacturing technology. People generally think of 3D printing as not having those limitations—you can want a part that’s as complex as you need it to be, and the machine can make it. There are some practical limitations, but most people view this technology as being able to build practically anything.

Hornick also shared his thoughts on some of the global ramifications of the emergence of 3D printing technology, including the technology’s “dark side.” I’ll cover that dimension in a forthcoming post.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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