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Why Singapore needs a public policy framework for 3D printing technology

By Yap Shiwen. A version of this article was first published on The Online Citizen. Republished with author’s permission.

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3D printer at work. Image: Keith Kissel

3D Printing or 3DP, an additive manufacturing technology that translates digital designs into physical objects, has emerged as the latest technology trend in the news, given its status as a groundbreaking innovation. It has the potential to disrupt established supply chains, logistics, the manufacturing industry and intellectual property rights.

One Singapore startup, Pirate 3D, aims to become a prominent producer of 3D printers and a distributor of digital designs. It has been active in marketing itself across different media platforms and has articulated a long-term goal of facilitating a post-scarcity economy via the creation of a low-cost 3D printer.

3DP holds great promise, with applications ranging from tissue engineering and organ production to its established use in rapid prototyping and design, and even the production of household goods such as furniture. Affected by this technology are designers, both artistic and industrial, engineers, software programmers, 3D artists and technicians.

But what is its relevance to Singapore? Given the current state of the world economy, as well as advances in robotics, computing and 3D printing, Singapore needs to look at ways in which the technology can be harnessed and capitalised, as doing so soon would grant a significant first mover advantage to the country and develop its status as a center for 3d printing technologies.

More significantly, 3D printing disrupts supply chains by potentially allowing for local customised production of parts through on-demand production, more efficient material usage with less wastage and diseconomies of scale compared to traditional mass production methods.

It also allows for more compact infrastructure and equipment, granting space savings compared to traditional manufacturing equipment which is often bulky. Finally, it enables digital designs to be brought to life as physical products anywhere around the world.

Singapore needs a policy framework to address the multiple challenges that 3DP poses in both a local and global context. These areas need to be addressed:

  • Intellectual property

  • Legal Responsibility

  • Industry Standards

  • Infrastructure

  • Security

Intellectual Property (IP)

The basis of most 3DP lies in the software: the use of the STL (Standard Tesselation Language) format. It enables people to download designs off the Internet and translate them into physical objects. This is much like Napster, which enabled the digital distribution and reproduction of music through the use of the MP3 file format.

This challenges not only the established business models of mass production manufacturing, but creates an issue with regards to potential losses faced by designers, engineers and other IP holders. Much like Napster, the manufacturing industry will have to respond to this issue sooner rather than later.

At this current time though, 3DP isn’t developed enough to challenge traditional manufacturing businesses. 3DP business models are still evolving, with a combination of proprietary and open-source designs available through community portals such as Thingiverse, owned by Makerbot Industries. Another digital marketplace with the same concept but with a more commercially-oriented direction is Shapeways.

Given the rapid pace of development, measures need to be put in place to respond to these coming challenges. IP issues and patent conflicts could inhibit development of the industry and technology, as well as compromise consumer and investor confidence.

Any jurisdiction possessing an IP policy that vigorously protects designers would be able to maintain a strong advantage by building investor and designer confidence, as well as incentivising designers and their affiliates to base themselves there.

Legal Responsibility

There is currently no legal framework or arbitration process that has evolved to deal with the legal challenges pose by 3DP technologies. The ability to easily and rapidly create, copy and produce certain designs or products creates legal liability. Who is ultimately liable for any damage or injury incurred by way of the 3DP process and its resulting products? The designer? The webhost? The machine producer? The consumer?

Given the many different 3DP platforms and methods, which use different machines and processes to produce the same end-product, someone needs to be ultimately responsible in the event of accident or misadventure. It could be a component design at fault or a manufacturing defect.

Without a clear legal framework, consumers, designers and producers are not protected and have no legal framework within which to operate, resulting in reduced consumer confidence. This is also related to the issue of IP protection, as without legal protection and copyright claim, commercial designers would then have no incentive to develop their designs if they are unable to profit from them.

Industry Standards

Effective industry standards determine such things as designs, parts, processes, safety and materials, and the manner in which they are dealt with across different platforms and system. Effective standards underlie efficient and effective collaborations between companies, as well as contribute to consumer and investor confidence.

Developing standards involves codifying and propagating aspects of the manufacture and use of technology, as well as business practices. This leads to significant economic benefits, as a common set of industry standards reduces business costs and capital expenditure by businesses, in terms of accessing information for the development of core technologies and services.

It also serves to increase consumer confidence in the products from that marketplace. A lack of industry standards is economically inefficient, with competing standards resulting in incompatibilities between platforms that should otherwise be complementary. Standards support innovation, reduce inefficiencies, regulate markets and build investor confidence.

WIth the growth of a global marketplace corresponding to the growth of 3DP, customers will eventually be able to choose from a spectrum of digital designs. Production processes and materials need to be standardised in order for consumers to have confidence in the products they acquire.

Casual consumers need to have confidence that 3D printed products are of a sufficiently high standard in terms of material quality and printing service. Business owners and investors need to have confidence that 3D printed products can compete in the marketplace against traditionally manufactured products.

Currently, an example of a common standard of the 3D printing industry is the STL format, native to stereolithography CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software and used in rapid prototyping and computer-aided manufacturing.

Infrastructure

There needs to be alterations to digital and physical infrastructures in order to manage the impact of 3D printing. Emerging technologies and new markets rely upon supporting infrastructure to prosper and sustain themselves.

Just as the motor vehicle industry only took off with the creation of road networks and the growth of the petrol station, so too does the 3D printing require an infrastructure to develop into maturity.

Singapore has much of the infrastructure required for the 3D printing industry to function, in terms of having the digital communications network and high-quality digital infrastructure needed for its functioning. However, it also needs sufficient capital investment and an appropriate regulatory regime in order to grow.

The status of Singapore as a logistics hub could be shaken up by the capabilities of 3D printing. It could be either negative or positive, given that 3D printing enables a shift from mass production to localised, on-demand manufacturing, lessening the requirement of moving bulk quantities of materials.

However given the niche of 3DP, it won’t be a complete disruption but rather an alteration in the business models of logistics firms.

Still, its disruptive effects need to be accounted for down the line. Singapore’s relatively central location and strong logistics network could serve to make us a primary production and distribution centre, and potentially even a design center, which is where the value of 3D printing truly lies.

Security

The Liberator is a 3D-printed handgun, designed and made available by Defense Distributed, an open source organisation that referred to it as as a “wiki weapon”. Other products associated with Defense Distributed and made using 3D printers were a receiver for an AR-15 and a magazine for the AK-47. This is a weapon design, in STL format, currently available for download on The Pirate Bay.

A test conducted by an Israeli Channel 10 team illustrated the threat it posed, when the gun was smuggled into the Israeli House of Parliament without the barrel or ammunition. This ability to penetrate the physical security of a vital government facility illustrates the sort of security threat that 3D printing can bring about, given its ability to bypass metal detectors.

In practical terms the threat from the Liberator is overrated, given the unreliability of the weapon and the need to gain access to an actual bullet, a task associated with a modest level of difficulty in Singapore. In other countries, it may pose more of a security risk.

This underlies part of the challenge posed by 3D printing. The creation and production of weapons is a grave security issue. And this is another challenge that will have to be addressed in some manner. It grants to criminal and terrorist elements a tool that is undetectable to some extent and bypasses most conventional physical security measures. And it is also a problem that may be outside the juristiction of Singapore’s security apparatus.

With the advancement of 3D printing technologies, this may only get worse, requiring the possible registration of people who buy 3D printers, as well as monitoring of businesses in possession of a 3D printer. However, this is an invasion of privacy and could also serve to stifle 3DP in Singapore.

Future Opportunities

Duann Scott of Shapeways predicts that from March 2014, the 3D printing sector is due huge growth due to the expiration of key patents on laser sintering, which is currently held by 3D Systems.

Selective laser sintering (SLS) is a 3D printing method using lasers to fuse small particles into a matrix, with a wide choice of material options such as plastics, metals and ceramics, in the form of an unsintered powder.

Compared to the Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) process utilised current 3d printers used by hobbyists, SLS is more efficient because a single session can be used to product multiple objects, with no requirement for any support structures. SLS methods allow for rapid batch production with a wider choice of materials, compared to FDM methods which can only produce one object at a time.

SLS opens up new opportunities for growth and investment in 3D printing, in terms of the areas of application, material research and hardware platform manufacture.

IP restrictions create a strong barriers in terms of capital investment, IP violation and a lack of innovation, as well as the ability to monopolise a market. Monopolies stifle innovation and are generally counterproductive for the industry and state of technology as a whole.

The removal of IP opens the way for smaller firms to develop and explore the market, benefiting consumers and hobbyists. It will also result in a drop in prices and increased competition amongst the different manufacturers, retailers and service providers present.

Ultimately, these future developments present opportunities in the area of patent law & IP protection, arbitration, material sciences research, manufacturing technology development and software development, in order to handle the demand and growth of the 3D printing business and market.

Conclusion

A forward-thinking public policy framework that can address these matters must be undertaken by the relevant agencies, such as the Ministry of Trade & Information and the Ministry of Law.

3D printing is a tremendous game-changer, having the potential to alter the nature of business across a range of industries, manufacturing and logistics. It also has the potential to result in much harm, socially and economically, if it is mismanaged and unaccounted for.

The United Kingdom government is looking at a public policy framework to address some of these issues.

China has responded to 3D printing by investing in several research centres, due to the disruptive effect that such a technology presents to China’s manufacturing industry, which is the basis for its current economic strength. A China 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance,  an collaboration between universities and businesses, has been formed to establish new industrial standards and work out policy.

Singapore should seek to do the same in response. It’s small size in this case presents an advantage. It has the ability to cluster companies, universities, research institutions and researchers from different disciplines together, provide the necessary facilities and infrastructure, and direct the capital investments and provide the financial resources needed for these sort of ventures, via schemes such as the Technology Incubation Scheme under the National Research Foundation.

Our status as a major international arbitration center plays further to our strengths. The legal system is based on the British Common Law System and is ranked third globally by the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in 2012. Singapore is also ranked as having the best framework in Asia for arbitration of commercial disputes by the World Bank in 2010.

In 2007, the International Chamber of Commerce-International Court of Arbitration (ICC) ranked Singapore as the top city in Asia for ICC arbitrations and one of the five most popular ICC arbitration venues since 2000, alongside Paris, London, Geneva and Zurich.

Singapore should aim to provide a patent environment where core 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies such as FDM, SLS and other techniques are available to developers and other interest groups, without the disruption of monopolistic companies or ‘patent trolls’.

It should offer firms and investors the ability to protect their business interests and promote innovation, as well as a transparent and neutral legal framework where IP conflicts between parties can be arbitrated.

By playing to these strengths in the legal, scientific and economic spheres, Singapore can prosper and survive in an age of increasing technological competition. This is a hub status worth chasing after.

Sources

Report urges UK government to develop 3D printing policy. 3Ders.org. On the Internet at http://www.3ders.org/articles/20121016-report-urges-uk-government-to-develop-3d-printing-policy.html

UK Study on 3D Printing – A Call for an Official Policy Framework. 3D Printing Industry. On the Internet at http://3dprintingindustry.com/2012/11/05/uk-study-on-3d-printing-a-call-for-an-official-policy-framework/

Singh, K. (2013). Changing the World: Pirate 3DP’s vision is to end ‘need’ . Digital News Asia. On the Internet at http://www.digitalnewsasia.com/sizzle-fizzle/changing-the-world-pirate-3dps-vision-is-to-end-need

Sissons, A. & Thompson, S. (2012).Three Dimensional Policy: Why Britain needs a policy framework for 3D printing .Big Innovation Centre.
On the Internet at http://biginnovationcentre.com/Assets/Docs/Reports/3D%20printing%20paper.pdf

Kharbanda, A. (2012). Government needs policy plan for imminent 3D printing revolution to avoid missing out on huge growth opportunities. Big Innovation Centre. On the Internet at: http://www.biginnovationcentre.com/Media/Press-Releases/221/Government-needs-policy-plan-for-imminent-3D-printing-revolution

Mims, C.(2013). Additive manufacturing: 3D Printing will explode in 2014, thanks to the expiration of key patents. Quartz. On the Internet at http://qz.com/106483/3d-printing-will-explode-in-2014-thanks-to-the-expiration-of-key-patents/

Lou, A. & Grosvenor, C. (2012).Selective Laser Sintering, Birth of an Industry. University of Texas at Austin Mechanical Engineering Department.On the Internet at http://www.me.utexas.edu/news/2012/0712_sls_history.php#ch4

Singapore Ministry of Law. (2009).Background Brief on International Arbitration in Singapore. Ministry of Law (Singapore) Portal.On the Internet at http://www.mlaw.gov.sg/content/dam/minlaw/corp/assets/documents/linkclickf8e7.pdf

SIAF. (2013).About Singapore. Singapore International Arbitration Forum 2013 Portal.On the Internet at http://www.siaf.sg/registration/about-singapore.html

Cong, M. (2013). Manufacturing group to build 3D printing innovation centres. People’s Daily Online. On the Internet at http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90778/8242953.html

Masnick, M.(2012).How Patents Have Held Back 3D Printing. Techdirt. On the Internet at http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120130/16535017591/how-patents-have-held-back-3d-printing.shtml

Giseburt, R. (2012).3D Systems Suing Formlabs and Kickstarter for Patent Infringement. Makezine. On the Internet at http://makezine.com/2012/11/21/3d-systems-suing-formlabs-and-kickstarter-for-patent-infringement/

Singapore Ministry of Law (2013). Intellectual Property Policy .Ministry of Law Portal (Singapore).On the Internet at http://www.mlaw.gov.sg/our-work/intellectual-property-policy.html



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