3D Printing In Africa: Huge Benefit Or Big IP Threat?13/03/2017 by Munyaradzi Makoni for Intellectual Property Watch Leave a CommentShare this Story:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)IP-Watch is a non-profit independent news service, and depends on subscriptions. To access all of our content, please subscribe now. You may also offer additional support with your subscription, or donate.CAPE TOWN, South Africa – The five-metre tall 3D printer dwarfs four engineers in the renewable energy laboratory at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, the biggest tertiary institution in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. The tool with an ability to print enormous structures across a wide array of trans-disciplinary applications could arguably be Africa’s largest 3D printer. It was unveiled this month.Timothy Momsen, a masters student whose studies related to additive manufacturing techniques, took roughly a year to construct the printer which consumed materials close to R75000 (US$5600).“We have printed a 4.8m long round tube so far to test the accuracy of the machine,” said Professor Russell Phillips, the head of mechanical engineering at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). It took 36 hours to print. “We can print 1.2m by 1.2m by 5m,” he added.The team is readying to print the first 5m wind turbine blade. Renewable energy has just become one of many industries benefitting from 3D printing in Africa. 3D has turned out to be a major disruptor in the manufacturing industry.Unlike the rest of Africa, South Africa is becoming more and more competitive with the affordability of 3D printers. 3D printers have become a common feature in universities.Globally, the focus remains, how can intellectual property, the designs, patents, trademarks, and copyrights be protected while allowing 3D printing technology to positively impact society.3D Printing Favours Free Sharing?“As with any new technology, the innovators deserve to protect their IP (if they wish to) via normal patenting mechanisms provided their contributions are truly novel and patentable,” Philips told Intellectual Property Watch.The “open source” nature of the industry, however, seems to favour a lot of free sharing of information without restriction, he said.“This appears to fast track implementation of the tech in everyday life to some extent. The type of innovation likely to emerge in the near future will probably relate to structural print materials and faster production techniques,” Phillips added.It was not always like that. 3D printing was secure. As John Hornick wrote in his book, ‘3D Printing Will Rock the World’, digital printing had been around for about 30 years, but from 2002 to 2014, close to 225 early 3D printing patents expired. Another batch of 16 key patents on 3D printing processes lapsed in 2013-14.The monopolistic control over printing processes that have traditionally been confined to the industrial or healthcare fields ended.Products like hip and knee replacements, customised dental implants, bridges, crowns and dentures, and shells for hearing aids can be easily manufactured.Threats And Benefits“The biggest advantage of 3D printing is also its biggest threat, that is, the affordability and accessibility of 3D printing,” Sinal Govender, an attorney with Norton Rose Fulbright, South Africa, told Intellectual Property Watch.She said this brings with it a lot of uncertainty around intellectual property protection, as the ability to make unauthorised copies, what IP protection seeks to prevent, is becoming much easier.“Patent-infringing and counterfeit goods are only going to get easier to make and distribute, as more and more items have their full plans scanned into a computer somewhere,” Govender said emphasising, all types of intellectual property, copyright, trademarks, registered designs and patents, could be infringed and affected by 3D printing.There is a possible security risk, said Likonelo Magagula, director of Norton Rose Fulbright based in Johannesburg.There is no legislation to regulate 3D printing, which makes it possible for 3D printing to be used for almost anything, including the production of guns, she explained.It has been reported that in 2012, a company based in the United States created a CAD file for a 3D printable gun. Although soon thereafter the US Department of Homeland Security called for the file to be taken down, people had already downloaded it in thousands, she said as an example.One can get a 3Doodler Create 3D Printing Pen on Takealot (online shopping platform) for less than 2,000 rand. 3D printers can range from R6,000 – R35,000 and are available online.Govender said South African legislation, particularly the copyright and patent acts are quite old, drafted at a time when 3D printing could not even have been imagined.“It also takes a long time for amendments to be passed, so you can imagine that these are not keeping up with the exponential growth of technology over the past few decades,” she said.“But even so, the mechanisms under the Copyright Act which deal with unauthorised copying and reproduction should be able to deal with IP violations from 3D printing,” Magagula argued.The same applies to the Patent Act, she added. When you think about it, she said, making an authorised copy of something can constitute either patent or copyright infringement, it matters not what the mechanics (or how it is done) of the copying are.Govender said it is clear that 3D printing will disrupt the traditional manufacturing and supply chain model that we are used to.Particularly in Africa, 3D printing could accelerate service delivery by, for example, enabling hospitals to print scarce resources as and when they are needed and not have to rely on the allocation of resources by government. Moreover, as we move towards an era of focusing on renewable energy, and reducing our carbon footprint, 3D printing could see us producing less waste, as materials are only printed as the need arises.“I think that we may see a shift in how businesses have operated in the past,” she said. For example, Under Armour and New Balance sprung ahead of competitors like Nike and Adidas when they were first to market a customisable shoe.“No matter how much 3D printing disrupts all industries, I think that customers will always value the brands behind innovation,” Govender added.We could also see companies shift towards selling blueprints for authorised replicas, paired with a support service from their technicians, rather than placing physical replacement parts or accessories on the market she said. Here, the copyright in the software behind the services, as well as in the blueprints themselves, will become the companies’ assets.“The usual exceptions to infringement will also apply, and especially with designs and copyright, companies may struggle with preventing private parties from printing spare parts or reverse engineering products, both of which are fair game provided that certain requirements are complied with,” Govender explained.Why Buy When I Can Print It?The emergence of 3D printing should largely be seen as a huge opportunity for accelerating African development through IP, said Maureen Fondo, head of copyright and related rights, African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO).“Prototyping of designs and patented products becomes much easier and will not have to be passed on to overseas manufacturers who sometimes end up appropriating these from the designers,” she told Intellectual Property Watch.Fondo said opportunities in considering whether limitations on the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) for health, for example, can be extended to 3D printed bio-parts exist.Licensing and cross-licensing is also a way to benefit and protect the 3D and allow the societies to benefit from this technology, she said.The emergence of the technology, on the other hand, presents challenges for monitoring of infringement, she said, raising the most common concern.“Every person with a 3D printer becomes a potential infringer of another’s rights. After all, ‘Why buy it when I can print it?’ can become a philosophy in the minds of printer owners,” she said.“What is needed is to come up with protection mechanism for all beneficiaries, increase vigilance on monitoring infringements, but also giving room for the technology to grow and generate the necessary solutions for Africa” Fondo said.There may be 3D violations arising from the traditional cultural expressions of African local communities, for example baskets and mats that from time immemorial have been produced locally, mostly handmade, that can now be produced by the 3D technology, she noted.“What are the rights of the local communities in such situations? There is a need for countries to come up with protection mechanism for all beneficiaries in such cases,” said Fondo.Hailemichael T. Demissie, associate professor, School of Law at the University of Gondar, Ethiopia, and senior non-resident research fellow at the African Centre for Technology Studies, Nairobi, Kenya, agreed that, 3D printing poses a major challenge to established ways of IP protection.“The concept of IP will have to change in view of the ease of IP violations with 3D printing. Striking a balance between the rights of the IP owner and the enormous advantages 3D presents society will be a major task of IP governance of our time,” he told Intellectual Property Watch.Some of the issues may not be new, but will have a new significance with 3D printing, he added.Demissie said society will have to come up with innovative ways of protecting IP while harnessing the benefits of the technology for social, economic and environmental ends. Established ways of legal IP protection are not good enough to meet the challenges of IP protection in the age of exponential technological advancement.“One possibility is to use the technology itself to enforce IP rights. This might, for example, take the form of copy-protected versions of the files used for 3D printing. This was tested in the music industry with copy-protected CDs. The law will have to deploy technology in regulating technology as it can no longer do this with mere black letter law in the statute books,” he said.Will IP be Less Valuable in Future?One innovator may have started doing that. Andre Wegner, founder and chief executive officer of Authentise in the US, told Intellectual Property Watch that his company developed the world’s first “streaming” solution for 3D printing to provide companies with the opportunity to share designs securely into remote locations.Wegner said their software responds to IP violations resulting from 3D printing.“We provide software-based services like streaming, but also process automation systems for 3D printing, so this is not really something we have to worry about,” he said, adding, but their clients still worry about it.When it comes to 3D printing and IP in Africa, Wegener said, there were fewer risks than opportunities.“Just before I set up Authentise, I lived in Nigeria and saw supply chain failure first hand. Factories laid still because spare parts weren’t available, oil rigs that were producing less for the same reason, risks to safety in planes or elsewhere because of the same reason. Digital manufacturing can enable (in the long term) production of anything, anytime, anywhere,” he said.“There are obvious limitations to that, and it’s a distant vision at present, but in a few use cases we’re already getting there,” said Wegner. “That is the potential and when it’s fully realised IP will be less valuable – value added services are how companies will make money.” Image Credits: Nelson Mandala Metropolitan UniversityShare this Story:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)RelatedMunyaradzi Makoni may be reached at email@example.com."3D Printing In Africa: Huge Benefit Or Big IP Threat?" by Intellectual Property Watch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.