3D Printing: Should You Go Open Source?
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on February 22, 2017 |
ENGINEERING.com explores the benefits and drawbacks of an open-source model for 3D printer manufactu...

Although it’s possible that patents have existed since the time of the Ancient Greeks, the Venetian Patent Statute is more widely recognized as the first official patent system. Established in 1474, the statute declared that 10-year patents could be granted to "any new and ingenious device, not previously made.”

Along with all of society’s rules and mores, patent law and intellectual property (IP) have changed over time. We are now living in the post-Internet era, in which ideas and files are exchanged all around the world on a regular basis. It is now possible to download Phil Collins’ entire discography, whether it’s legal or not. It’s also possible to download 3D printable guns, legal or not.

Patent laws were initially written to protect the innovations of inventors against potential infringers; however, now that new models related to IP have been developed, particularly as they have been aided by the open software movement, it may be necessary to reexamine the IP models of the past in relationship to these new models. The example of the modern 3D printing industry may prove to be an important one, given the fact that, after the expiration of key patents related to fused deposition modeling (FDM), the world saw an explosion of low-cost, desktop 3D printers that quickly evolved thanks to the open-source RepRap movement.

To learn more about the open-source movement and traditional IP models as they relate to 3D printing, ENGINEERING.com spoke with a variety of experts. Altogether, their insights may inform those in the 3D printing industry as to whether or not an open-source model is right for them.

The Advantages of IP

While the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and other means for protecting public safety are under the chopping block of the current presidential administration, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is, so far, still at work. The result of the first Patent Act signed by George Washington in 1790, the USPTO has a mission to “maintain[] a permanent, interdisciplinary historical record of all U.S. patent applications in order to fulfill objectives outlined in the United States Constitution.”

“Fig. 4” from Chuck Hull’s original SLA patent inspired the design of 3D Systems’ new Figure 4 3D printing system. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems/USPTO.)
“Fig. 4” from Chuck Hull’s original SLA patent inspired the design of 3D Systems’ new Figure 4 3D printing system. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems/USPTO.)

Since the signing of the Patent Act, the USPTO has issued over 8 million patents and receives over 485,000 patent applications per year. Whether it’s a new design, process or even plant, the USPTO aims to prevent others within the United States from profiting off of patented work for about 20 years after the date a patent has been filed. Once a patent is granted, however, it’s usually up to the patent holder to defend it, resulting in patent infringement lawsuits.

John F. Hornick is an IP counselor, litigator and partner at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, L.L.P. Hornick is also a 3D printing enthusiast, who speaks and writes about the topic of 3D printing and IP on a regular basis. We asked him for his input on the benefits of IP.

According to Hornick, the closed model of IP protection provides companies with a period of exclusivity, with “the right to prevent others from making, using, selling or importing any device, product or process covered by the patent’s claims, which in the field of 3D printing could be any machine, material, product or process.

“Trade secrets protect anyone’s secret process, or secret sauce,” he added. “Investors demand that companies have IP rights. No IP, no money. IP portfolios also give companies leverage and bargaining power if they are accused of infringing someone else’s IP rights, and they can also license their patents for a revenue stream.”

Despite these benefits, Hornick has witnessed a growing anti-IP sentiment. “IP rights are being disrupted from within, and they are unpopular in some circles.  We are going through an unprecedented period of anti-IP sentiment. As the result of important court decisions, patents are being invalidated right and left, or are never granted in the first place,” Hornick said.

While there is pushback to the existing IP model, Hornick does not “see open platforms substantially disrupting IP anytime soon.” That doesn’t mean that businesses aren’t pursuing open platforms, but he argues that businesses that pursue such platforms will derive their profits in ways that don’t rely on IP rights.

Going Open Source

Obviously, then, a company’s decision to pursue an open-source philosophy usually isn’t derived from financial motivation, though there may be financial benefits that will be discussed later. An open proponent of open-source hardware and software in the 3D printing community is Joshua Pearce, associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering and associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Michigan Technological University.

At the Pearce Research Group, Michigan Tech’s Open Sustainability Technology Lab, he and his students explore a wide range of topics related to sustainability and open-source 3D printing. Pearce has published numerous studies indicating that, not only can open-source hardware increase innovation, but it can also reduce costs.

“[With open-source platforms,] it is just easier, less expensive and faster to innovate,” Pearce explained to ENGINEERING.com. “You are free to start innovating off of the best of what is already available instead of what you may be able to license in the proprietary world. You can borrow the best work of others without any legal concerns, and all you are obligated to do is share your work back with the global community under a compatible license. If you are fortunate, your project will become popular in the open-source community, which will provide you with a global engineering team constantly building upon and improving your project for free.”

An open-source syringe pump, created to provide an example of the cost savings possible for research labs with open-source technology. (Image courtesy of Appropedia.)
An open-source syringe pump, created to provide an example of the cost savings possible for research labs with open-source technology. (Image courtesy of Appropedia.)

Pearce has provided numerous examples of the benefits of open-source 3D printing. In his latest study, Pearce and his student, Emily Petersen, demonstrated that, by 3D printing a number of household items at a rate of one per week, a 3D printer could pay for itself in six months. Over the course of five years, they estimated that $12,000 could potentially be saved by printing rather than purchasing these goods. And those are home goods. In another study, he and his team were able to calculate that 3D printing open-source lab equipment, such as a syringe pump, could result in savings of upwards of $800 million.

“There is no question that at this point IP laws hinder innovation,” Pearce said. “Patents essentially create friction at every step of the innovation cycle, increasing costs and wasting time. In some cases, entire fields have been held captive for 20 years by patents. For example, 3D printing is actually a pretty old technology, but it did not really start to take off until the open-source RepRap (self-replicating rapid prototyper) 3D printer was created after the overly broad patent on all fused filament printing expired. If we want to improve innovation, IP needs to be significantly weakened, and there is an easy case to make for that—as the costs of innovation have dropped with improvements in technology, there is no reason for such repressively long monopolies.”

The issue for Pearce isn’t as crucial when it comes to more trivial details of a consumer product, such as the “rounded corners of the iPhone.” He explained, “[W]here this becomes tragic is when IP interferes with technologies we need like medicine or renewable energy. For example, IP laws enabled the absurd and unethical behavior of the patent holders of the EpiPen.”

Pearce’s views about IP laws, which he has written about more extensively in Nature, obviously go beyond the realm of 3D printing. Pearce also has a background in solar and nanotechnology. He pointed out that there is not yet a solar cell on the market that relies on all of the innovations that have occurred in the solar industry in order to improve overall efficiency. This is due to the fact that it is prohibitively costly to license every subtechnology in order to create a better solar cell. For this reason, he advocates the move to the open-source development of technologies “that actually matter,” such as solar cells.

Bridging the Gap with Co-Creation

It’s nearly impossible to count the number of companies that are still relying on existing IP models, but new start-ups and even established corporations are venturing into the world of open source. Some important examples include GE, Autodesk and Local Motors, which have found unique methods for opening up to the public.

The 3D-printed Strati concept car from Local Motors. (Image courtesy of Volim Photo.)
The 3D-printed Strati concept car from Local Motors. (Image courtesy of Volim Photo.)

Local Motors is an open-source auto company, most famous for its work 3D printing entire car chassis using Cincinnati Incorporated’s Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) platform. It’s not really feasible for members of Local Motors’ co-create community to actually 3D print their own cars, but Local Motors doesn’t exactly expect them to.

Instead, the company relies on its community to develop its vehicles, often through open competitions. As a result, all of Local Motors’ cars have been designed, in concept, by the firm’s community. “Folks don't build their own Local Motors vehicles, but they do contribute to design and engineering challenges that we host to help us with our next project. Open sourcing has helped Local Motors innovate more quickly and develop a larger scope of ideas than would be possible. We are able to solve tougher challenges and with a wider range of ideas than if we weren't open,” Jacqueline Keidel, Public Relations manager for Local Motors, explained.

In addition to opening Local Motors up to new ideas, this approach is meant to allow the co-creation community to provide feedback about products that might go to market. When a winner of a Local Motors design challenge is chosen, they get substantially more than the chance to provide input. With some competitions, competition winners may earn a single lump sum and, in the case where a vehicle is commercialized, they will receive royalties with each sale.

Inspired by Local Motors’ co-creation model, GE Appliances formed FirstBuild. Located on the University of Louisville campus, FirstBuild invites makers to learn about and design new products. Similar to Local Motors, FirstBuild hosts competitions to design new appliances, such as the IoT-connected Milky Weigh, a device that measures the weight of milk in the user’s fridge to let them know whether or not they need to purchase more milk while grocery shopping.

The Milky Weigh IoT device. (Image courtesy of FirstBuild.)
The Milky Weigh IoT device. (Image courtesy of FirstBuild.)

Lawrence Portaro, director of FirstBuild and previously the Engineering Manager for Cooking Products at GE, discussed the community’s openness to the surrounding community, whether online or at the physical site in Kentucky.

“We engage the community about what they’d like to see in terms of solutions for the home,” Portaro said. “We have a co-creation area where we reach out to folks and see what they would like to see, what the next cool thing is that they’d like to do and what kind of problems they would like to solve. As we work on the products, we’re very open. There’s no barrier for entry. You come in and join us in the creation of new products.”

When a community member has an idea for a product that they’d like to work on, they can work with experts at FirstBuild to turn those ideas into a reality. “We’re very aware and very respectful of people’s intellectual property. People are always credited with their ideas,” Portaro explained. “You can continue to work with me [on your idea] or you can go off and, if you chose to work with someone else, the IP is still yours.”

For those who win design competitions, they may receive a lump sum. However, in some cases, a community member might be very engaged in the design process of a product. As GE Appliances contributes its expertise to commercialize and sell the product, the designer will still receive credit and royalties for the product.

The reason for this split is that, though the community member may have developed the product, GE Appliances uses its domain knowledge, and puts in the capital and the labor to bring the product to market. “[I]f you think about it,” Portaro said, “if we vet out the idea and then create something manufacturable, safe and cost-effective, we need to be able to have a business model that allows us to benefit from the effort that we put in.”

Portaro pointed out that GE regularly opens up the API for its software, allowing developers to create software solutions for GE products, but noted that hardware is a different story. While source code must be made public for others to work with it, hardware is tangible and can be physically understood more easily. Interestingly, Autodesk tried a different approach and actually made its hardware open source with the release of the Ember 3D printer.

Autodesk Goes Open Source

Guy Martin, director of open-source initiatives at Autodesk (“Open@ADSK”), explained that Autodesk has been a part of the open-source world for some time. Martin explained that open-source models have been key in the software world so that time and expertise isn’t wasted “recreating enabling technology like operating systems, cloud stacks, security libraries, etc.”

It’s in these areas of commodity or enabling technologies, like operating systems, cloud stacks and security libraries, that an open-source approach may make the most sense, according to Martin. “Things like the Linux operating system, OpenStack, Cloud Foundry, Docker containers and security protocols like OpenSSL are excellent examples of how open-source communities can come together to create great technology that enables others,” Martin said. “A primary advantage of open source in these cases is simply the scale of the developer community that can't be matched by any single company. For example, recreating the Linux kernel alone would take approximately 25 years. That doesn't make good business or engineering sense to take on in a proprietary way.”

Martin, however, believes that proprietary technology is more advantageous when it comes to domain-specific problems, such as “CAD, building information modeling, specialized 3D graphics, simulation, computational fluid dynamics, etc.” Martin explained, “Obviously, the ability to take advantage of these specialized skills and use them to build functionality on top of enabling technologies like Linux and other open-source software is a significant advantage to companies like Autodesk.”

The Ember 3D printer from Autodesk. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
The Ember 3D printer from Autodesk. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

It came as a huge surprise when, in 2014, Autodesk announced the release of Ember, its digital light processing 3D printer. What was even more surprising was that the software giant would release the device under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike, enabling anyone to potentially build Ember on their own. More than that, Autodesk even opened up the formula to its photopolymer resin, making it possible for anyone to modify and mix up 3D printing resin without purchasing any from Autodesk.

Andreas Bastian’s, principal research scientist in Autodesk’s Digital Manufacturing Group, was able to speak address the reason to go open source with Ember. “The Ember printer was created as a reference implementation to demonstrate the advantages of an open, integrated hardware, software and materials ecosystem,” Bastian said.  Moreover, making Ember open source allowed Autodesk to understand how it could better create software to run 3D printing hardware. “[W]e needed to develop that software in parallel with hardware so we could best understand both sides of the problem,” he added.

Can You Profit from Open Source?

Joshua Pearce said that one reason the open-source model may be looked down upon is the misconception that it’s impossible to make money as an open-source company. “The primary disadvantages are that some companies and funders are not familiar with open-source business models. They have the mistaken belief that you can't make money unless you have an intellectual monopoly on producing something. This is simply wrong—see, for example, multibillion dollar per year open-source titan Red Hat—but it still can make it hard to get venture funding,” Pearce said.

Software developer Red Hat is the world’s most financially successful open-source company with a market cap of $14.8 billion. Open-source hardware is a bit newer, but the 3D printing industry is already creating some interesting examples, such as Colorado-based start-up Aleph Objects.

The LulzBot Mini 3D printer. (Image courtesy of Volim Photo.)
The LulzBot Mini 3D printer. (Image courtesy of Volim Photo.)

Aleph Objects is the manufacturer of the LulzBot line of open-source 3D printers, which run on open-source Cura print management software. There are other open-source 3D printer companies that share their designs shortly after the release of a new product, but LulzBot is completely transparent about its printers even as it’s working on them. On top of that, Aleph Objects uses all open-source products, such as the Linux operating system, for its own operational purposes.

In an interview with ENGINEERING.com, LulzBotPresident Harris Kenny elaborated on the reasons for the company’s pursuit of the open-source philosophy. “The company is committed to respecting user freedom because we think that’s the right way to do business,” Kenny said. “We value our customers and want to treat them that way. That is a motivation that’s an important point at the outset.”

From a business perspective, however, Kenny said that being an open-source company has a lot of utilitarian benefits. Being open to its community enables LulzBot to work closely with its own users. As they find a problem with or a possible improvement for a 3D printer, LulzBot is able to incorporate those ideas into future designs.

At the same time, there are no product secrets within the company, such as new R&D developments that may be occluded from other staff members. As a result, the Sales and Engineering departments often have the same knowledge about the company’s products, making it possible to engage with customers with that much more expertise.

Kenny said that the company no longer has to explain how an open-source company can be profitable. Now, Aleph Objects’ success can speak for itself. Last August, Aleph Objects was ranked 122 on Inc. Magazine's 35th annual Inc. 500 list. At the time, Aleph Objects was described as the fastest-growing privately held computer hardware company in the United States with 2,782 percent three-year sales growth.

Aleph Objects has yet to release its financial numbers from 2016, something that, as a private company, it is not obliged to do. Initial estimates, according to Kenny, indicate that the company remains strong. “In 2015, we had $15 million in sales. In 2016—we haven’t published the numbers, but I can say that it’s over $20 million,” Kenny said. “It was a nice, healthy year and another year of strong growth. We’re seeing growth in different ways, different ways of measuring. We’re selling to new types of customers. We’re selling new materials. We’re introducing new products.”

Is the Future Open Source?

John Hornick doesn’t believe that the anti-IP sentiment will shrink anytime soon because society’s current speed of innovation is happening at a pace that outruns the long periods offered by most IP systems. For that reason, he believes that IP rights will become narrower and harder to obtain in the first place.

Hornick pointed out that, for instance, the America Invents Act, aimed at eliminating weak patents, has already “invalidated about 80–90 percent of patents challenged under the law’s procedures.” He argued that the courts have been “chipping away at copyright protection for years, mostly in the software area,” which may make companies afraid to enforce IP rights.

“[T]he Constitution gives Congress the right to enact laws that provide IP rights, but it does not require Congress to exercise that right,” Hornick said. “It is conceivable that a few squeaky wheels could convince Congress to narrow (more likely) or maybe even eliminate (less likely) laws that grant IP rights.”

He also described the concept of making things “away from control,” in which the democratization of manufacturing through 3D printing and bioprinting enables people to fabricate things without approval from an IP holder. “As manufacturing away from control increases,” Hornick explained, “IP infringement becomes difficult to identify. If you can’t identify it, it is impractical or impossible to enforce your IP rights. At that point, your IP rights become irrelevant.”

In the case that IP laws become weaker or less relevant or if businesses and individuals choose to pursue an open-source philosophy, there may be significant benefits for society at large that may outweigh the benefits currently experienced by corporations.

“If everything were open source, all technologies would be extremely inexpensive and accessible,” Joshua Pearce said. “Think of the Internet and the enormous bounty of open-source software. Innovation would be so fast as to almost appear continuous. The potential of distributed digital manufacturing technologies makes such a future at least theoretically possible.”

If everything were open source, there would be a potential for everyone to thrive and live rich sustainable lives, working on self-improvement and being creative with their material wants already satisfied. Finland is actually starting to experiment with such social policy with a guaranteed income for citizens in a controlled experiment. That is the optimistic view I am working towards.”

Pearce believes that some may fear such a future would actually result in “nearly complete unemployment and/or an indolent population without purpose, both of which would be strung out on drugs and playing video games 24/7,” but uses the retirees of the world as an example of people who “have managed to find purpose and be productive members of society even without necessarily working for income and staying away from heroin.”

There’s still a lot of progress to be made to get human civilization to a place of fullyautomated luxury space communism. Andreas Bastian, for instance, pointed out that the organization around open-source hardware still requires some development. Guy Martin suggested that companies like Autodesk will need to continue investing in open-source projects in order to further cultivate the movement. We may also need to see either a company like Aleph Objects reach the scale of RedHat or for a business that is already as big as Red Hat to go open source.

Whether or not an open-source utopia is possible or desirable is unknown, but if companies begin following the models presented here and elsewhere, we may just find out.

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