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First Person: 3D Printing’s “Disruptive” Effect on Manufacturing

Hornick advises and educates clients about 3D printing and the IP issues of this rapidly developing and potentially disruptive technology.

Q4 2016
AD: You obviously see a huge opportunity for 3D printing to bring jobs back to the USA. What types of jobs do you see given that the U.S. offers “high intellectual capital” as you note in your book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World?

Hornick: The technology lends itself to customization of products, making complex, one-of-a-kind parts, contrary to mass production that requires large factories, economies of scale, and low-cost labor. Where 3D printing provides benefits is one-off, customized, highly complex parts that lend themselves to being made in smaller factories, making these parts or products where they’re needed in a regionalized model.

It’s already happening. There are close to 1,000 of these small regionalized 3D printing factories in the U.S. and thousands or tens of thousands around the world. Some are traditional machine shops that have added 3D printing to expand their capabilities, and some are just 3D printing facilities, in some cases making prototype parts and in some cases making end-use parts. There is a lot of infrastructure that comes along with those businesses, such as machine manufacturing, materials development and manufacture, software development, maintenance of the machines, and a lot more.

AD: You mention that 3D printing “can break the boom-and-bust cycle of chasing the next cheap labor force.” Can you explain how that might happen?

Hornick: The US was the manufacturing powerhouse based on its labor through World War II — then labor became too expensive and shifted offshore. Japan then became the powerhouse of manufacturing in the 1980s, and the U.S. looked at that model for manufacturing and quality. Then the bubble burst in the early 1990s and manufacturing shifted to China. Now the same thing is happening there — costs are going up; labor rates are approaching what workers in the U.S. make; and the boom in China may be on its way to a bust. Manufacturing will then move someplace else. 3D printing and robotics, for example, will make manufacturing more regionalized in smaller companies doing customized manufacturing.

AD: So that is what you mean when you mention in your book that 3D printing can “break the grip of centralized manufacturing and, in fact, may no longer be needed”?

Hornick: There are some things that seem to be viable that aren’t — and some that are. You can 3D print the parts you need for customization then make the other parts conventionally. Some people believe 3D printing may shift car manufacturing from a centralized location [like Detroit] to the dealer, which makes sense. 3D printing gets back to that customization — specify what car you want, which may look very different than what we have now — and customize the features. The technology will continue to develop and lends itself to customization as well as regionalization. Why not have the car customized at the dealer? Maybe that’s how the automotive industry adapts to this technology.

John Hornick is a partner with the Finnegan intellectual property (IP) law firm, having founded the firm’s 3D Printing Working Group.
AD: Do you see regionalized 3D printing as a way to reduce the problems of shipping and its high costs?

Hornick: If you regionalize manufacturing, you shorten the supply and distribution chain. The closer you make the product to where it’s being used, the less costly it will be. There’s no warehousing or inventory involved. For example, Caterpillar has to warehouse tens of thousands of replacement parts to cover the machines they’ve built for the last 20 years that are still in use.

AD: Can you comment on the idea of making replacement parts, such as aircraft parts, in remote places where shipping might be a two- to three-day process, or stocking inventory too expensive? What about IP and infringement issues? Wouldn’t IP owners rather make and sell the replacement parts? Would automakers like it if repair shops could print the replacement parts?

Hornick: Many companies have already 3D printed replacement parts. We tend to think of replacement parts as something we install and it lasts for several years like the original part. What 3D can do is provide interim parts or “sacrificial” parts to get the airplane or the heavy equipment out of a remote location and to a repair shop where replacement parts could be installed. It’s a complex issue. If you’re talking about repairing something, that’s probably not patent infringement. The trouble with 3D printing from that perspective, making a 3D part in a remote location could be considered reconstruction, and the IP owners might object to that in some cases. However, OEMs might have limited ability to enforce their rights. The question is do you want to roll with the technology or do you want the technology to roll over you? Adapt to it and adopt it.

AD: Economic development organizations like to attract large manufacturers that can bring in big plants and hire hundreds of employees. What will small, independent 3D printing service bureaus do for the job market vs. the large factories that employ hundreds of people?

Hornick: The economic development people should be thinking about education and training of local people so they can design for and use this technology, and many may start their own business. The biggest challenge is designing for 3D printing for the many applications for which the technology will be beneficial. They need people to operate the machines, perform the post-processing steps, and write the program software for all the different applications. I talk to people all the time who say they can’t find the people with the necessary skills to do the job.

Manufacturing away from control — away from the oversight of the large manufacturers or IP owners — is definitely disruptive to mass production. As I say in my book, all of this eliminates the need for mass production and economies of scale. Thus, even if 3D printing does not replace mass production, it could disrupt or destroy the need for it. These are the reasons that people who ask if 3D printing will ever be capable of mass production may be asking the wrong question. More importantly, when people can 3D print almost any part away from control, mass production may be displaced by production by the masses.
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