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3D Printing: friend or foe?

The world is fast becoming enamoured with the possibilities provided by 3D printing, but does the technology present any threats to the trade? Jeff Salton explores.


3D printing has been described as the next major disruptive technology, in the same way that the steam engine, electricity and the internet have revolutionised the way humans not only think but live their lives.

For most jewellery designers and manufacturers, 3D printing is nothing new – they’ve been utilising the services of CAD/casting companies for some time. The rest of the world, however, is realising that 3D printing can quickly and inexpensively help materialise a design or create a prototype with little risk, minimal time delays and excellent results at a reasonable cost.

Once the domain of large factories, 3D printing technology companies are now making equipment suitable for universities, small businesses and even home desktops. On one hand, this is great news for jewellery designers and manufacturers as it makes the equipment more affordable to them. As 3D technology patents expire, equipment will become even cheaper, possibly following in the footsteps of laser printers.

On the other hand, however, any drop in price puts the same equipment in reach of any budding designer who can also use the internet to download free software that enables them to make their own jewellery or even modify existing designs on 3D company websites to create something “unique”, raising larger issues of intellectual property and copyright.

Allowing someone at home to create their own rudimentary jewellery for personal use doesn’t really threaten the professional industry, but the ability to identically copy and reproduce one-off or even mass-produced pieces is something the jewellery industry will need to address.

Not long ago, 3D printers were something of a “black art” as users were required to be highly skilled in computer-based CAD programs, which was not something learned overnight.

Today, the goalposts have shifted. As an example, a prototype of a handheld, full-colour, point-and-shoot 3D scanner has appeared on crowd-funding website Kickstarter. Its creators promise that novices will be able to capture any object and automatically produce the computer files needed to create a 3D printout.

“Just hold it up in both hands and press a button (just like a camera)… in theory the finished product could make copying a real-world object as easy as click-click-click,” the creators state on the website.

Before jewellery designers start calling for legal intervention over copyright infringement, first take a deep breath. Matthew Hall of Swaab Attorneys, an expert in trademark and copyright law, says, “The ability of someone to easily, quickly and cheaply make an identical replica of any object has significant ramifications for all, especially IP [intellectual property] rights owners. This is particularly so for those involved in manufacture, distribution or sale of objects that have few, if any, moving parts, or that are simple in design or operation, like spare parts, jewellery, sporting goods or toys.

“We have already seen 3D printed shoes, jewellery, fashion, furniture and iPhone accessories,” he adds. “As the technology continues to develop, and innovators and entrepreneurs find more uses for the technology, the impacts will be felt throughout every industry, and at all points of the supply and distribution chain. Those businesses or industries that plan now will be best placed to respond to the challenges.”

Hall says the current IP laws do not deal with the challenges faced by this new technology: “Our current IP framework seeks to control activity at key points in the traditional manufacturing and supply chains. As seen with the introduction of other disruptive technologies that put greater control in the hands of consumers (the photocopier, the video recorder and peer-to-peer file sharing technology), IP laws struggle to keep up with dramatic shifts in process or disruption to the supply chain.”

Over time, the law was able to respond to these challenges, but the response was not immediate. In some cases, industry and rights holders had to lobby hard for new laws, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

In February this year, a group of intellectual property specialists within the worldwide Meritas network convened a panel discussion looking at the IP regimes in the US, the UK, South Africa and Australia.

According to the panel, copyright protection is problematic in all four countries and will only assist in limited circumstances, particularly where articles themselves are scanned and copied.

“Copyright will apply if the product is a work of artistic craftsmanship, such as decorative piece of jewellery; however, many articles that are likely to be copied will not qualify, and there are issues where the article or parts of it are purely functional or utilitarian in nature,” Hall explains.

“A design drawing for a product may also be a copyright work and the creation of digital blueprints may infringe that copyright, but in the UK, for example, it is not an infringement of any copyright in a design document (for anything other than an artistic work) to make an article to the design or to copy an article made to the design. Similar rules apply in Australia.”

As a general rule, unless jewellers have registered their design (or it is a work of artistic craftsmanship), they will not be able to prevent anyone from copying it using a 3D digital blueprint, and then selling it. Jewellers will also not be able to prevent anyone from making available a digital blueprint of the product, unless that blueprint is itself a copy of the original digital blueprint or developed from a plan.
Importantly, creation and distribution of digital blueprints made from scanning a product will not be an infringement of copyright in the product.

In all four jurisdictions, some form of protection for novel design features is available, with significant differences between the types of rights and terms of protection.

Hall warns jewellers that reproducing an article protected by a registered design is only an infringement if done commercially and that home users duplicating products for private use will not infringe design rights.

“In Australia,” he says, “while the provision of a ‘kit’ that allows a person to make a product embodying a registered design is an infringement, a digital blueprint is not a ‘kit’ and so the provision of that blueprint (which embodies a digital copy of the article but is not an article made by the blueprint provider) is not an infringement.”

Some would argue that scanning and identically reproducing any item is really counterfeiting but Hall says this is not always the case. If a registered trademark is applied to goods without the permission of the owner of that trademark, the goods will be counterfeit, and the trademark will be infringed.

“A difficulty with 3D printing is that if a consumer prints the product, uses it personally, and does not seek to sell it, even if the digital blueprint reproduces a trademark on the product, that is not trademark use,” Hall explains.

It sounds like Pandora’s box is starting to open.

Most people would be surprised to learn that 3D printing has been around since the 1970s, but high prices and the complexities of using the equipment kept it in the hands of a small group of industries, jewellery manufacture being one.

With the price of 3D printers now falling – one brand of domestic 3D printer in Australia currently retails for around $1,800 – and software becoming more accessible, the threat to the industry is growing. Already, some file-sharing sites provide 3D blueprints of certain objects in the same way they share pirated music and movies.

Mitchell Beness is Australian business development manager for 3D printer manufacturer 3D Systems. He says engineering firms, industrial design houses, consumer product manufacturers, dental labs, universities, schools, research institutions, the automotive industry, the aerospace industry, heavy machinery industries and architects are among those buying machines from his company.

3D Systems has been in Australia for 20 years and Beness says professional level machines from his company have been positioned at an attractive pricepoint and provide very high quality parts, including wax patterns for the jewellery industry, among various other applications. Commercial-grade 3D printers are an excellent solution for jewellers.

“These systems provide detailed high-resolution wax patterns that can be used in the traditional casting process. The speed of these systems means that a jeweller can print 50 wax models in about 10 hours or one model in about two hours,” he says.
 
At a commercial printing level, Larry Sher, director of casting company Chemgold doesn’t see domestic 3D printing machines as a threat to his business.

“Although the prices are dropping, it is still a considerable investment for jewellers,” Sher says. “Our clients use our services for speed and accuracy and don’t have to worry about the complex nature of printing and casting such as calibration service and repair. Most companies that choose to invest in 3D printing still prefer us to cast their pieces as they can be confident in our reliability and expertise. This ensures they can focus on other areas of their business.”

Chemgold bought its first 3D printer in 2004.

“We are the Australia and New Zealand distributor for DWS Systems, which produces the smoothest surface finish available in the marketplace. This gives us the advantage of being at the forefront of technology updates,” Sher says, adding that the new range of smaller machines differs in quality and accuracy, and that their surface resolution cannot compare to the technology provided by DWS Systems equipment.

The fact that some consumers are investing in 3D technology and creating one-off personal pieces doesn’t appear to threaten the jewellery industry. After all, not everyone is a skilful designer who can create beautiful pieces that wearers will cherish – a couple of failures might see the novelty quickly dissipate. Blatant copying of handcrafted or popular pieces, however, is still another matter that designers, manufacturers and retailers will need to address.











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Wednesday, 24 July, 2019 07:58am
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