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When a much-heralded technology like 3D printers comes along, you might well ask if it can solve some of these challenges. Well potentially yes, but it also brings risk too, raising difficult questions around intellectual property and liability.
For years now procurement departments across the world have been facing the challenge to reduce costs, do things quicker, source more locally, support SMEs and become more sustainable. When a much-heralded technology like 3D printers comes along, you might well ask if it can solve some of these challenges. Well potentially yes, but it also brings risk too, raising difficult questions around intellectual property and liability.
According to Google trends 3D printers reached the maximum 100% in interest in May 2013; suddenly the world has woken up to the possibilities of 3D printing and certain industries will have given the technique close scrutiny. While the media and the public gets excited I think the procurement world needs to avoid the hype and evaluate.
The idea of organisations procuring 3D printers to produce components such as maintenance parts for IT equipment brings two main issues in my mind; the first one being intellectual property rights. Any designs that are obtained, particularly from the internet may have copyright protection and just because it is available on the web does not make it for public use. As mentioned on Bizjournals.com; copyrights, patents and trademarks are all a potential threat, companies may use 3D printers for those replacement parts but under patent protection; if that item has any form of copyright protection there could be an infringement whether there was any user knowledge or not. Any form of trademark or logo on the design will print onto the item…a big no, no.
Where companies choose to procure 3D printers to support production processes this could become an issue. The issue that will need to be considered, the legality of IP brings more risks into the procurement of 3D printers and as pointed out in the Procurement Leaders blog by Harry John; “Risk and cost reduction have to live together on the CPO’s mission statement”. At this time 3D printers may be seen as the way to go to make savings and regain some ownership of the supply chain but let’s just take a step back and consider the risks and what it could cost organisations before we jump in feet first.
Liability is the other stumbling block. As 3D printers become more widely used the challenge of ownership comes into play. I believe that the healthcare sector will become one of the first categories to adopt the 3D printer to revolutionise its processes, particularly in terms of prosthetics. Where does the responsibility lie if there are any issues with a printed prosthetic? It may improve the process but does that level of responsibility bring more challenges for sectors like the health sector to tackle, particularly as it is one industry that is constantly being monitored by the media. Reputational risk is surely a bigger priority and introducing untrusted technology might well ring alarm bells.
At the moment 3D printers are an unknown, but an exciting one and of course they’re generating as many promoters as detractors. I do believe they can do great things, especially in terms of the environmental pressures of waste management, and reducing emissions from transportation but I am not convinced we are there yet.
Inevitably the problems of IP and liability will have to be tackled, besides the other challenges that stand between the hype and wider adoption. But where there’s a will there’s often, it turns out, a way.