I spent my day yesterday sitting in the main ballroom at Cleveland’s Ritz Carlton hotel with a few hundred attorneys, business leaders, and academics from across Northeast Ohio to discuss how 3D printing is changing how we do business. It was the second annual 3D Printing Conference hosted by Benesch Attorneys at Law, a prominent law firm whose focus areas include intellectual property law – a hot-button topic in the 3D printing industry right now. Unsurprisingly, intellectual property issues were a primary focus of the conference, formally entitled “What Every Business Must Know Today About 3D Printing/Additive Manufacturing.”
So what does every business need to know about 3D printing? In short – everything. The speakers and panelists, who ranged from manufacturing leaders to college professors, all emphasized, repeatedly, that every business, no matter what the sector or client base, needs to get familiar with 3D printing – and fast. Dave Pierson, Senior Design Engineer for the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET), opened his presentation with a quote he attributed to 3D printing industry expert Terry Wohlers: “If you are not running in this space, you are already falling behind.” That was the consensus shared by everyone who presented yesterday: businesses, if you don’t leverage 3D printing, your competitors will, so start implementing it now.
In addition to driving home the importance of 3D printing, many of the speakers also focused on addressing the fears of many businesses in regards to how 3D printing threatens intellectual property. The conference was moderated by Mark Avsec, a Benesch partner and the leader of the firm’s 3D Printing Legal Team. A copyright, trademark and media lawyer, Avsec is intimately familiar with IP issues, as he spent years working in the music industry as a musician, songwriter and producer. He drew a parallel between today’s 3D printing-related IP problems and those that affected the music industry with the advent of the Internet, providing a sobering look at the dramatic drop in album sales with the emergence of services like Napster and illegal streaming.
We can learn a lot from the music industry, Avsec stated before stepping aside for Matt Hlavin, President and CEO of Thogus Products Company and the founder of several subsidiaries including rp+m, a founding member of America Makes. Hlavin, who gave a talk called “Debunking the Hype Cycle,” is a huge fan of 3D printing. He believes that it will “recreate the middle class” as more and more jobs begin to require expertise in the technology – expertise that can be obtained through community or technical colleges. However, he also cautioned that we shouldn’t get too caught up in the current hype and expect too much too fast, calling it an “evolutionary not revolutionary” technology.
According to Hlavin and Benesch partner Risto Pribisich, who joined him at the podium, we tend to overestimate what a new technology will accomplish in two years and underestimate what it will accomplish in ten. It’s an accurate assessment, in my opinion – in today’s instant-gratification culture, so many people expect immediate earthshaking results from a new technology, then lose interest when the world doesn’t spin on its axis right away. It also means, though, said Hlavin, that panic over intellectual property loss is a bit premature for the manufacturing industry. Yes, it’s an issue that shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s more of an impending threat than an immediate one, and in the meantime, businesses can take preventative action to protect themselves from possible IP theft in the future.
Following Hlavin was John Cheek, Deputy Chief IP Counsel of Caterpillar Inc., to discuss what some of those preventative steps can be. He restated Hlavin’s “pay attention but don’t panic” message. His advice to companies was to patent, patent, patent, more so than they do now. Patent 3D printed parts themselves, patent the model files, and leverage technology for proprietary designs. One suggestion he had for companies was to develop embedded or internal validation features – a company brand can easily be removed by someone 3D printing a counterfeit part, but an identifying feature embedded inside the part is much harder to replicate.
A panel discussion followed, featuring Patty Motta and Carol Miller of American Greetings, along with Susan Clady and Julie Fenstermaker of Benesch. American Greetings, one of Cleveland’s oldest companies, is beginning to explore 3D printing – right now they’re mostly using it for prototyping, but Miller suggested, without revealing too much detail, that we should expect to see a lot of 3D innovation from the company very soon. 3D printed gifts, 3D printable files that will allow people to print 3D models of their favorite card designs – there’s a lot in the pipeline. American Greetings has long offered personalization services that allow people to customize and print their own cards, so it’s not a tremendous leap from 2D to 3D. They’re not too worried about IP theft, for the most part. If e-cards haven’t destroyed their business, there’s no reason to think that 3D printing will, but again, preparation and vigilance are key.
Following American Greetings’ panel, the focus turned towards the future of 3D printing in Northeast Ohio. Look for more on that later, but in short, things are looking bright for Cleveland, which was hit hard by the economic crisis and the decline of manufacturing. A Q&A session was held by Brett Conner, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Youngstown State University and Entrepreneur in Residence for Additive Manufacturing at the Youngstown Business Incubator, followed by a panel discussion with Hlavin, Pierson, Conner, Benesch partner Mike Stovsky, and OneCommunity CEO Lev Gonick. The consensus was that Northeast Ohio has very good potential to become a technological leader – as long as we continue to foster startups and leverage new tech like 3D printing and the Internet of Things to their fullest potential.
Wrapping up the conference was a brief panel with Eric Klenz, Managing Director of KeyBanc Capital Markets, and Andy DeHart, Director of 3D Printing at Fisher/Unitech, the #1 Stratasys value-added reseller in the world. The panel was entitled “Where’s the Smart Money Going in Additive?” and Klenz and DeHart were both of the opinion, unsurprisingly, that bioprinting and metal additive manufacturing are the biggest areas to watch right now – though we should keep an eye on nanoprinting in the near future.
In short, it was an enlightening experience to attend a 3D printing conference in my own hometown and see how the technology is affecting the area and people around me. I hope to be able to attend next year’s conference to see how things have progressed in the interim – I’m confident that a lot of good things will happen between now and then, both for the industry and for my city.[All photos: taken on-site by Clare Scott]