By Yap Shiwen
3D Printing or 3DP, an additive manufacturing technology that translates digital designs into physical objects, has emerged as the latest technology trend in the news, given its status as a disruptive innovation. As a technology, it has the potential to disrupt established supply chains, logistics, the manufacturing industry and intellectual property rights.
One of the technology startups centred in Singapore, Pirate 3DP, aims to develop itself as both a producer of 3D printers and a distributor of digital designs. It has been active in marketing itself across different media platforms and has articulated a long-term goal of facilitating a post-scarcity economy, via the creation of a low-cost 3D printer.
3DP technology holding great promise, with applications ranging from tissue engineering and organ production to its established use in rapid prototyping and design, and even the production of household goods such as furniture. Professions ranging from designers, both artistic and industrial, to engineers, software programmers, 3D artists and technicians are affected by this technology.
But what is its relevance to Singapore? Simply put, it is a technology with a global impact but with particular relevance to Asia, due to the presence of significant global economies present in Asia – the most crucial being China.
The rise of China resulted in a shift of both financial capital, jobs and industrial infrastructure to China beginning in the 1980’s, due to the lower labour costs and greater scalability China offered, as well as the size of its domestic market.
However, with the current state of the world economy, as well as the advances in robotics, computing and 3D printing, Singapore needs to look at ways in which the technology can be harnessed and capitalised, as doing so soon would grant a significant first mover and early adopter advantage to the country and develop its status as a niche for 3d printing technologies.
More significantly, 3D printing disrupts supply chains by potentially allowing for local customised production of parts through on-demand production, more efficient material usage with less wastage and diseconomies of scale, compared to traditional mass production methods. It also allows for greater compactness of infrastructure and equipment, granting space savings compared to traditional manufacturing equipment which is often of greater bulk. Finally, it allows for designs in the form of digital information to be transmitted around the world.
This necessitates the requirement for a policy framework to address the multiple challenges it poses to Singapore, in both a local and global context. The challenges it poses can be categorised into the following:
Intellectual Property (IP)
The basis of most 3DP lies in the software, the use of the STL (Standard Tesselation Language) format. This enables people to download designs of the Internet and translate these designs into physical objects. This is much like Napster, which enabled the digital distribution and reproduction of music through the use of the MP3 file format.
This challenges not only the established business models of mass production manufacturing, but creates an issue with regards to the potential losses faced by designers, engineers and other IP holders. Much like Napster, the manufacturing industry will have to respond to this issue sooner rather than later. 3DP technologies are not presently developed enough to pose a challenge to traditional manufacturing businesses.
At this current time, the business model centred around 3DP is still evolving, with a combination of proprietary and open-source designs available through community portals such as Thingiverse, owned by Makerbot Industries. Another digital marketplace with the same concept but with a more commercially-oriented direction is Shapeways.
Given the rapid pace of development, measures need to be put in place to respond to these coming challenges. IP issues and patent conflicts could inhibit development of the industry and technology, as well as compromise consumer and investor confidence in the industry.
Any location possessing an IP policy that vigorously protects the IP of designers would be able to maintain a strong advantage, in attracting building investor and designer confidence, as well as incentivising designers and their affiliates to base themselves in there.
There is currently no legal framework or arbitration process that has evolved to deal with the legal challenges pose by 3DP technologies. Given the ability to easily and rapidly create, copy and produce certain designs or products, this then results in the issue of legal liability. Who is ultimately liable for any damage or injury incurred by way of the 3DP process and its resulting products? The designer? The webhost? The machine producer? The consumer?
Given the ability to rapidly disseminate designs worldwide, combined with the many different 3DP platforms and methods, which use different machines and processes to produce the same end-product, who is ultimately responsible in the event of accident or misadventure? It could be a component design at fault or a manufacturing defect
Without a clear legal framework, consumers, designers and producers are not protected and have no legal framework within which to operate, resulting in reduced consumer confidence. This is also related to the issue of IP protection, as without legal protection and copyright claim, commercial designers would then have no incentive to develop their designs if they are unable to profit from them.
Effective industry standards determine such things as designs, parts, processes, safety and materials, and the manner in which they are dealt with across different platforms and systems need to be developed. Effective standards underly efficient and effective collaborations between companies, as well as contribute to consumer and investor confidence.
Developing standards involves codifying and propagating aspects of the manufacture and use of technology, as well as business practices. This leads to significant economic benefits, as a common set of industry standards reduces business costs and capital expenditure by businesses, in terms of accessing information for the development of core technologies and services. It also serves to increase consumer confidence in the products from that marketplace. A lack of industry standards is economically inefficient, with competing standards resulting in incompatibilities between platforms that should otherwise be complementary. Standards support innovation, reduce inefficiencies in the marketplace, regulate markets and build investor confidence.
WIth the growth of a global marketplace corresponding to the growth of 3DP technology, a customer will eventually be able to choose from a spectrum of digital designs. Production processes and materials need to be standardised, in order for consumers to have confidence in the products they acquire. The casual consumer needs to have confidence that 3D printed products are of a sufficiently high standard, in terms of material quality and printing service. Business owners and investors need to have confidence that 3D printed products can compete in the marketplace against traditionally manufactured products.
Currently, an example of a common standard of the 3D printing industry is the STL format, native to stereolithography CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software and used in rapid prototyping and computer-aided manufacturing.
There needs to be alterations to the infrastructure, digital and physical, in order to manage the impact of 3D printing. Emerging technologies and new markets rely upon supporting infrastructure to prosper and sustain themselves.
Just as the motor vehicle industry only took off with the creation of road networks and the growth of the petrol station, so too does the 3D printing require an infrastructure to develop into maturity.
Singapore has much of the infrastructure required for the 3D printing industry to function, in terms of having the digital communications network and high-quality digital infrastructure needed for its functioning. However, it also needs sufficient capital investment and an appropriate regulatory regime in order to grow.
The status of Singapore as a logistics hub will be impacted by the capabilities of 3D printing. It could be either negative or positive, given that 3D printing enables a shift from mass production to localised, on-demand manufacturing, lessening the requirement of moving bulk quantities of materials. This could lead to a disruption of Singapores logistics infrastructure, of the network of business and transport links that enables the movement of goods through Singapore. However given the material requirements, it will not be a complete disruption but rather an alteration in the business models of logistics firms rather than a disruption of the sector.
Still, this disruptive effect on logistics, in terms of the supply chain disruption that comes from localised manufacturing capability, needs to be accounted for down the line. Singapores relatively central location and strong logistics network could serve to make us a primary production and distribution centre, and potentially design, which is where the value of 3D printing truly lies.
The Liberator is a 3D-printed handgun, designed and made available by Defense Distributed, an open source organisation that referred to it as as a “wiki weapon”. Other products associated with Defense Deistributed and made using 3D printers were a receiver for an AR-15 and a magazine for the AK-47. This is a weapon design, in STL format, currently available for download on The Pirate Bay.
A test conducted by an Israeli Channel 10 team illustrated the threat it posed, when the gun was smuggled into the Israeli House of Parliament, without the barrel or ammunition. This ability to penetrate the physical security of a vital government facility illustrates the sort of security threat that 3D printing can bring about, given its ability to bypass metal detectors.
In practical terms the threat from the Liberator is overrated, given the unreliability of the weapon and the need to gain access to an actual bullet, a task associated with a modest level of difficulty in Singapore. In other countries it may pose more of a security risk.
This underlies part of the challenge posed by 3D printing. The creation and production of weapons brings about a public security issue. And this is another challenge that will have to be addressed in some manner. It grants to criminal and terrorist elements a tool that is undetectable to metal detectors and bypasses most conventional physical security measures. And it is also a problem that may be outside the context of the security apparatus of Singapore.
With the advancement of 3D printing technologies, this may only get worse, requiring the possible registration of people who buy 3D printers, as well as monitoring of businesses in possession of a 3D printer. However, this is an invasion of privacy and could also serve to stifle the 3D printing business in Singapore, were this to happen.
From March 2014, there is a projection of extensive opportunities for growth in the 3D printing sector due to the expiration of key patents, according to Duann Scott of Shapeways. This involves the expiration of the patent on laser sintering, which is currently held by 3D Systems.
Selective laser sintering (SLS) is a 3D printing method using lasers to fuse small particles into a matrix, with a wide choice of material options such as plastics, metals and ceramics, in the form of an unsintered powder.
Compared to the Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) process utilised in currently available 3d printers used by hobbyists, SLS is more efficient process because a single session can be used to product multiple objects, with no requirement for any support structures. SLS methods grant the advantage of rapid batch production with a wider choice of materials, compared to FDM methods which can only produce one object at a time.
This expiration of patent rights,the associated removal of IP barriers and the higher build quality batch production provided by SLS techniques opens up several new opportunities for growth and investment in 3D printing, in terms of the areas of application, material research and hardware platform manufacture.
IP restrictions create a strong barrier to overcome, in terms of capital investment, IP violation and a lack of innovation, as well as the ability to monopolise a market. Monopolies stifle innovation and are generally counterproductive for the industry and state of technology as a whole. The removal of IP opens the way for smaller firms to develop and explore the market, benefiting consumers and hobbyists, and the entire market as a whole. It will also result in a drop in prices and increased competition on the market, amongst the different manufacturers, retailers and service providers present.
China has responded to 3D printing by investing in several research centres, due to the disruptive effect that such a technology presents to China’s manufacturing industry, which is the basis for its current economic strength. The China 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance is an alliance between universities and business which is responsible for this initiative.
Ultimately, these future developments present opportunities in the area of patent law & IP protection, arbitration, material sciences research, manufacturing technology development and software development, in order to handle the demand and growth of the 3D printing business and market.
Given this short summary of major issues brought about the 3D printing, and the disruptive impact it has, a forward-thinking public policy framework that can address these matters needs to be undertaken by the relevant agencies, such as the Ministry of Trade & Information and the Ministry of Law.
3D printing is a tremendous game-changer, having the potential to alter the nature of business across a range of industries, manufacturing and logistics more so than others. It also has the potential to result in much harm, socially and economically, if it is mismanaged and unaccounted for.
The United Kingdom government has been encouraged to evolve and create a public policy framework, in order to address some of these issues. While in China, a China 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance has been formed, with the aim of establishing new industrial standards and a policy framework to address the issues affecting the industry.
Singapore should seek to do the same in response, given the impact and implications of such a technology and its effects on both the public and private domains, and its commercial and industrial impact. There are tremendous growth opportunities that can be capitalised upon, if there is a public policy calibrated to take advantage of and address the challenges posed by 3D printing.
Singapore’s small size in this case presents an advantage. It has the ability to cluster companies, universities, research institutions and researchers from different disciplines together, provide the necessary facilities and infrastructure, as well as direct the capital investments and provide the financial resources needed for these sort of ventures, via schemes such as the Technology Incubation Scheme under the National Research Foundation.
Finally, our status as a major international arbitration centre plays further to our strengths, with a strong legal Infrastructure. The legal system is based on the British Common Law System and is well regarded with a global ranking of 3rd, by the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in 2012. Singapore is also ranked as having the best framework in Asia for arbitration of commercial disputes by the World Bank in 2010. In 2007, the International Chamber of Commerce-International Court of Arbitration (ICC) ranked Singapore as the top city in Asia for ICC arbitrations and one of the five most popular ICC arbitration venues since 2000, alongside Paris, London, Geneva and Zurich.
Singapore should aim to provide a patent environment where core 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies such as FDM, SLS and other techniques are available to developers and other interest groups, without the disruption of monopolistic companies or ‘patent trolls’. It offers firms and investors the ability to protect their business interests and promotes innovation, as well as a transparent and neutral legal framework where IP conflicts between parties can be arbitrated.
Playing to these strengths in the legal, scientific and economic spheres, we can capitalise upon them to prosper and survive in an age of increasing competition, as well as develop ourselves as a hub of another sort, in order to survive in an increasingly post-industrial age.
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