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.

3D Printing Favors 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 favor 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, customized 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, “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.

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.

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.

We could also see companies shift towards selling blueprints for authorized 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.

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).

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.

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.

“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 Authentic 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. 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 realized IP will be less valuable – value added services are how companies will make money.”