Earlier this month, I wrote about John Hornick and his passion about the potential of 3D printing technology. As a huge proponent of the technology, Hornick is fond of articulating the benefits of its disruptive nature. Yet he’s equally quick to point out that inherent in this disruption are difficult issues that need to be resolved in order for 3D printing to become mainstream.
Hornick, author of the book, “3D Printing Will Rock the World,” is an intellectual property counselor and litigator with Finnegan, a global IP law firm based in Washington, D.C. He’s therefore highly focused on one of those difficult ramifications in particular: the IP issues associated with the technology. He’s gone so far as to refer to the “demise of IP” in this regard, so I began this portion of my interview with Hornick by asking him to encapsulate his thinking there:
I’ve pioneered this concept that I call, ‘away from control,’ which means the ability to make something without anybody knowing about it, and without anybody being able to do anything about it. This is the idea that Cody Wilson was experimenting with when he 3D-printed a gun a few years ago. He said it was an accident that his gun wasn’t detectable by a metal detector, that that’s not what he was going for. He’s a little difficult to understand, but I think what he was experimenting with was, what would the implications and ramifications be if anyone could 3D print a gun without anyone knowing about it and without anyone being able to control it? That’s ‘away from control.’
Hornick went on to apply the “away from control” concept to parts and products that are protected by patents:
The way things work now, where everything is kind of within control, a manufacturer makes a part, and sells the part to a customer. It’s protected by a patent, and if somebody copies that part and starts selling it, they’re going to be sued for patent infringement, and they’ll likely lose, and they’ll be stopped from making that infringing part. But if you can make that part away from control—no one knows about it, no one can do anything about it—then interesting things start to happen. You start to have an increased amount of infringement, because anyone can make the part, and nobody knows about it. If you have an increased amount of infringement, but it’s away from control, then it’s difficult to identify it. If you can’t identify it, it’s impossible to enforce those IP rights. At that point, those IP rights become irrelevant because they can’t be enforced. So I don’t expect that 3D printing will destroy intellectual property, but I think it will definitely put pressure on the whole system, just like the easy exchange of digital music over the Internet has put a lot of pressure on the copyright system in the music industry.
I asked Hornick if there’s a solution to the problem, and he said by definition, if things are being made away from control, there’s no solution:
But I still always advocate to clients to build the strongest intellectual property portfolio that you can. There will be calls for legislation to try to deal with the problem. There will be lawsuits, and there will be efforts made to try to lock up the information that’s in those digital blueprints—it’s commonly called ‘digital rights management.’ All of those things will be successful to varying degrees. But if it’s ever possible, and I believe it will be, to make many of the things we need in our homes with our own machines, then intellectual property that covers those things will be essentially irrelevant, because no one will know we’re making these things. No one will be able to control it.
We’re seeing an increased amount of hacking of all types around the world. When you have the digital blueprint for a 3D-printable part, that’s going to be something that some people might want to steal. So companies, from an IT perspective, have got to control the blueprints themselves; control the use of the machines; and keep it all secure.
I asked Hornick what country is currently leading the world in the adoption of 3D printing technology. He said the United States is certainly 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.
Hornick contends that one of the things that makes 3D printing such a disruptive technology is the potential to repatriate manufacturing jobs that have moved offshore. He explained that potential this way:
The way that things are made traditionally is that you have a factory full of machines, and to make a particular part, you might need 10 or 15 different machines to be involved in making that part. There’s an assembly line that goes from machine to machine—all those machines have operators, and all those operators have labor costs associated with them. With a 3D printer, you have a machine that has the capability of making an entire part or product in one build. So instead of 10 or 15 machines, you have one machine, and you may have one operator who operates a whole room full of 3D printers. So you have much lower labor costs involved, which means you can make things in countries that have high labor costs, like the United States, or the UK, or even Japan. That’s the reason why manufacturing can be brought back. You can make things closer to where they’re needed, rather than in some far-off land, and then shipping them across the world.
Finally, I asked Hornick to elaborate on what he has called the “dark side” of 3D printing:
There is definitely a dark side, and one aspect of that would be the ability to 3D-print guns that are away from control. Maybe they’re plastic, in which case they’re undetectable, which really scares people. Or maybe they’re made of metal, and it’s just that there’s no control—anyone can print them. Felons are not allowed to own guns or have guns, but if they could 3D-print one, or if there was a facility that 3D-prints guns for felons—that could be a business model one might pursue—that would be the dark side. Beyond that, there have been some enterprising criminals who use 3D printers to make fake facades for bank machines that are actually skimmers that collect information from cards. There have been raids by law enforcement officials around the world, where they find drugs and guns, and sometimes 3D printers. It’s a great machine for counterfeiting. There are all kinds of things it can be used for that are illegal, but I think the benefits of the technology far outweigh the negative uses.
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.