3D Printing, Intellectual Property and Innovation Policy



Three-dimensional (3D) printing technologies differ from traditional molding and casting manufacturing processes in that they build 3D objects by successively creating layers of material on top of each other. Rooted in manufacturing research of the 1980s, 3D printing has evolved into a broad set of technologies that could fundamentally alter production processes in a wide set of technology areas. This article investigates how 3D printing technology has developed over the last few decades, how intellectual property rights have shaped this potential breakthrough innovation and how 3D printing technologies could challenge the system of intellectual property rights in the future. Patent protection seems to have played an important role in the industrial 3D printing sector. In the newly emerging personal 3D printing sector, the intellectual property system faces new challenges. Developers of personal 3D printing systems and services have to cope with large-scale infringement by end-consumers, a situation well known from digital content technologies. At the same time, the expiration of key patents on 3D printing has arguably contributed to a flourishing ecosystem of open source 3D printer hardware and software. As in other areas of innovation policy, the role of the intellectual property system in fostering innovation in 3D printing technologies is a complex one. It played a beneficial role in some instances (sometimes intended and sometimes unintended), and it may have played a neutral or detrimental role in other instances. Studying the progress of 3D printing technologies thereby also informs us about the intricate relationship between intellectual property and innovation.


3D printing Additive manufacturing Innovation policy Open source 


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Copyright information

© Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition, Munich 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ETH ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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