Yesterday, the law firm of Benesch Attorneys at Law held its third annual 3D Printing Conference, an event geared towards keeping legal professionals up to date on 3D printing and the ever-growing amount of new legal issues that it introduces. This was the second Benesch conference I attended; last year I learned a great deal about intellectual property and 3D printing, as well as the growing 3D printing industry in Northeast Ohio. This year, intellectual property was, unsurprisingly, a topic of interest again, but those in attendance also learned that the tricky legal issues involved in 3D printing go far beyond IP.
The first part of the one-day conference focused mostly on the 3D printing industry in general and what’s happened in it over the last year. That’s a topic that could take up a two-day conference, at least, so we were given a quick overview that focused mostly on the headlines of the last two quarters. (We were also met with a quick video message from Melissa Snover, CEO of the Magic Candy Factory, who had 3D printed the Benesch logo as a delicious, lemony-tasting gummy that greeted everyone upon arriving at their seats.)
Like last year, conference moderator Mark Avsec started the presentations off. Avsec is a Benesch partner and Vice-Chair of the Innovations, Information Technology & Intellectual Property (3iP) Practice Group at the practice, and has been instrumental in turning the law firm into a pioneer in the area of additive manufacturing and intellectual property.
Benesch is the first law firm to start a licensing exchange focused solely on additive manufacturing, and Avsec is an expert on licensing and intellectual property, having worked in the music industry for decades. Like the music industry, which has finally begun embracing streaming services after fighting them for years, the manufacturing industry needs to adapt to technology in order to survive, he said.
“Fighting technology is not such a good idea,” he commented, “because technology always wins.”
The next presentation came from John Cheek, who, at the time of last year’s conference, was the Deputy Chief IP Counsel for Caterpillar. He’s moved on since then and is now the Chief Intellectual Property Counsel for Tenneco Inc., a global manufacturing company specializing in advanced technology for cleaner air and better transportation. Cheek reprised his presentation from last year, pointing to Caterpillar as an example of a manufacturing technology company that is thriving by embracing additive manufacturing, and noting the company’s recent metal additive manufacturing partnership with FIT AG.
Cheek isn’t an alarmist at all; he doesn’t feel that 3D printing presents an intellectual property crisis, but that it’s important to be vigilant. It’s not an issue that’s being taught in most law schools today, he said, and that needs to change.
The latter part of the afternoon took an interesting shift towards a topic that hadn’t been on the agenda last year: biomimicry. A video spotlighted a couple of local companies, which we would also hear from in the next panel discussion. Great Lakes Biomimicry is a collaborative effort to boost manufacturing in Northeast Ohio by focusing on biomimicry, and is responsible for the creation of the first doctoral program in the subject, at the University of Akron. The first graduate from the program was Emily Kennedy, who is now the CEO of a startup called Hedgemon.
Hedgemon is currently working to design a new kind of football helmet based on, of all things, the hedgehog. Hedgehogs, Kennedy explained, spend a lot of their time climbing trees, and they fall quite frequently – but they don’t get injured because of the shock-absorbing ability of their quills. Hedgemon is using 3D printing to prototype a helmet with an interior that mimics the formation and structure of hedgehog quills, in hopes that it will reduce the number of concussions that football players suffer.
“I think what’s so exciting about 3D printing, especially as it relates to biomimicry, is that nature tends to create function through structure,” Kennedy said in the panel discussion. “So it’s less about the inherent behavior of the material that something is created by and more about that complex hierarchical structure that enables a function, and so the more you can 3D print things with internal cavities and complex geometries, the better you can do biomimicry, and we found that with the hedgehog model. We had these quills that had a complex internal geometry that we really needed 3D printing to create.”
The football helmet is still in the prototyping stage, but the company is hoping to use the hedgehog model for other applications in the future, as well. The panel discussion also included Thomas Tyrell, Founder and CEO of Great Lakes Biomimicry; René Polin, President and Founder of product innovation firm Balance, Inc.; and Dr. Moo-Yeal Lee, of the Cleveland State University Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, who briefly discussed 3D bioprinting.
Another video followed, highlighting NextStep Arthropedix, which is using Arcam Electron Beam Melting to create 3D printed hip implants and is filing for IP protection for not the implants themselves, but their trabecular surface design. That then led into the final panel discussion of the day, which included Anthony Hughes, President of The Lanterman Group; Mark Horner, Vice-President Business Development for The Technology House; Alan Rothenbuecher and Mike Stovsky of Benesch; Kirk Rogers, Technology Leader at GE’s Center for Additive Technology Advanecment; Leanne Gluck, Deputy Director of Workforce and Education for America Makes; and Barb Ewing, Chief Operations Officer of the Youngstown Business Incubator.
The panel discussion touched on many of the big questions about additive manufacturing today, such as: what are the barriers to widespread adoption? According to Rogers, the three biggest barriers are lack of education about the technology, the cost of materials, and the sophistication of the software vs. the general knowledge base. He also brought up an issue that Avsec had touched on briefly earlier: the tricky legal issues that arise when hospitals become manufacturers rather than just service providers.
Rogers brought up a case in which Walter Reed National Military Medical Center was unable to proceed with a treatment that involved 3D printing custom implants for service members with head injuries, because the FDA stated that 3D printing the implants made the hospital a manufacturer, and thus subject to new regulations.
“So I think what we’re seeing as a big impediment is just the slowness with which the government moves on putting in regulation for allowing these kinds of improvements which, in this case, was lifesaving,” he commented.
That kind of bureaucracy could end up being a real issue for the medical 3D printing industry, but in terms of overall manufacturing, the panel remarked on the speed at which additive manufacturing is advancing, namely in transforming from a prototyping technology to an end-use technology. Ewing spoke about a cluster study the Youngstown Business Incubator recently conducted, and reiterated that 3D printing has the potential to be a huge job creator in Northeast Ohio.
Stovsky agreed, pointing out that the government needs to get involved with incentives to attract more additive manufacturing companies to the region, and also noted that 3D printing will create jobs not only in manufacturing but in intellectual property law. The conference ended on a promising note, as Ewing pointed out the growing interest in additive manufacturing among young people in particular.
“Young people coming out of college are not looking at software products like they used to, they’re looking at applications for additive,” she said. “Additive is what’s hot and sexy these days, not software.”
Discuss in the Benesch forum at 3DPB.com.[All photos: Clare Scott]