3D printing 'poses major threat to IP"

Stratasys imageFewer technologies have attracted as much attention in the last few years as 3D printing, which promises to revolutionise both the manufacturing and distribution of goods.

With 3D printers increasingly accessible even for home use, there are increasing fears that the technology could be used to copy products protected by intellectual property (IP). Now a report from Gartner has placed a figure on the risk, predicting that by 2018, 3D printing will result in the loss of at least $100bn in IP around the world.

The report predicts the 3D printer market is set to explode as sales of both consumer and enterprise 3D printer sales look set to almost double each year between 2012 - when the market was valued at $288m - and 2017 when it is expected to top $5.7bn.

Using a device similar to an inkjet printer, 3D objects are built up - a layer at a time - using substrates such as plastics, metals and even biological materials. The technology is fast evolving from a tool used in rapid prototyping to one allowing on-demand, localised production of finished goods with minimal wastage of raw materials.

The potential is clearly exciting and likely transformative of the way manufacturing is carried out today, but companies which have significant IP tied up in the look and feel of their products must be feeling nervous.

"The plummeting costs of 3D printers, scanners and modelling technology, combined with improving capabilities, makes the technology for IP theft more accessible to would-be criminals," according to Gartner, which predicts that at least one major Western manufacturer will claim to have had IP stolen for a mainstream product by thieves using 3D printers by 2015.

It also expects the global automotive aftermarket parts, toy, IT and consumer product industries to report IP theft worth at least $15bn in 2016 due to 3D printing.

"The very factors that foster innovation - crowdsourcing, R&D pooling and funding of start-ups - coupled with shorter product life cycles, provide a fertile ground for IP theft using 3D printers," said Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner.

The report recommends that companies invest in technology to authenticate products that cannot be duplicated with 3D printers, such as embedded chips with unique signal characteristics, and work and retailers to develop ways for consumers to validate products.

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