Edition 52
Technical Trends - Can you Own a Shape?
by Bryant Underwood, Public Safety Sourcing, Cassidian Communications

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This month I wanted to expand on what I think is a rapidly developing and game changing technology for reverse logistics-3D printing. In the news of late, there have been quite a few news articles regarding the perils of 3D printing. The typical slant seems to center around why this new technology must be controlled for the protection of society. In each case the basis of the concern is because someone might use the technology to manufacture a firearm or some other destructive device. All of this concern seems misplaced. In truth computer controlled lathes and machine tools have been widely available for some time at a very low cost. These tools are far more capable than any 3D printer using thermo plastic. Today most 3D printers are used in some form rapid-prototyping or fabrication. Outside of a one-off need, there is not much use for these products. I believe that will change, and soon.

The very first time I was aware of 3D printing was when I worked at the General Dynamics Flight Simulation Lab in the late 80s. Back then the technology was called Stereo-Lithography. It was a very exotic technology that used lasers and polymers in a process that when witnessed looked more like conjuring than engineering. Then in 2008 I was asked to speak at a technology fair in Austin Texas. There I saw the 3D printer and capture system constructed by Tom Owad. What Tom built was amazing. Not only did he build a 3D printer, but he built a 3D capture system. The 3D capture used a couple of tape measures that had lasers with diffraction gratings to generate vertical lines. Tom would then place whatever he wanted to duplicate on an old record-player.

As the object would spin, the laser lines would paint the shape of the object in light. The webcam would then capture that information and render a 3D CAD file on his notebook computer. So in this case once the capture program was running and the record player was spinning, a CAD file of that green die was generated automatically. I believe this total setup cost about $50. By the way, notice the lego-stands, truly no expense was spared.

Then that CAD File would be transferred to his 3D printer. This thing was an amalgamation of old flat-bed scanners, plumbing and hot-glue guns. But it worked and worked well.

The plastic was melted and pumped out into whatever shape the CAD file required. The source of the plastic was simple weed-trimmer line. The commercial and even kit based 3D printers of today are orders of magnitude more advanced and accelerating. I tell you this little first hand story to frame how sophisticated technology has become and what the promise is.

Consider that for repair and reverse logistics today, few of our parts demands are from electronic parts. They are almost always from something made of plastic. Think of the problems that repair parts demand places on new product manufacturing. The requirement for the manufacturer to guess at how many parts to over-order to support repair is very wasteful. In addition to the materials and inventory cost from storage and finally the inevitable write-offs.

Today 3D printing technology is not ready to solve repair parts creation- but it will be. However, when the technology is ready, there are likely to be massive roadblocks to the widespread use of 3D printing. The most significant of these will be IPR (intellectual property rights).

The problem on the IPR front has really started in the medical field. One of the fast developing segments of medical research is in protein folding. In this technology large computers model how amino acids can be ‘folded’ to create proteins of certain shapes. These protein shapes are critical to developing new disease treatments and drugs. As you can guess there is a whole segment of IPR that gets claimed and reserved from these folded shapes. These same engineers and lawyers now look at 3D printing and have asked the question, ‘can I own the circle?’. If not the circle, can the shape of an iPod case have IPR held that would prevent it’s printing? But wait, it can get even more strange. Today there are already colors that are owned and licensed. What if you printed a part for a repair and the shape was legally licensed but not the color?

Will all this be solved? I hope so. But clearly the solutions not likely to arrive until some big players get involved and spread some money around. Keep an eye on the developments of this technology. When this matures and the legal problems get solved-watch out. Until then, I call dibs on the triangle.
Bryant Underwood manages Public Safety Sourcing for Cassidian Communications, an EADS North America Company in Frisco Texas.

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