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What is LEO Lane and How Does It Allow Digital Inventory?

What is LEO Lane and How Does It Allow Digital Inventory?

LEO Lane’s secure manufacturing ecosystem [Source: LEO Lane]

LEO Lane’s secure manufacturing ecosystem [Source: LEO Lane]

I’m looking at an ancillary additive manufacturing service that secures intellectual property.

The service is LEO Lane, and they’re trying to solve problems with manufacturing that most manufacturers may not even realize they have.

The problem relates to how accepted procedure is slowly changing from in-house produced physical spare parts to digital inventories made real by remote production facilities.

Historically a manufacturer might produce a number of spare parts by running the production line longer than required for current demands. These “extra” parts would be stocked for future use as spares on request. The problem with this approach is that it’s expensive to produce, store and manage the parts, particularly when there is no guarantee they will actually be used.

A more pragmatic approach enabled by recent technologies is a digital inventory, where the manufacturer doesn’t actually produce the spare parts until requested. Instead a digital version of the part’s design is easily stored and used to produce a physical part when requested. But with the expense of setting up a production line again, some manufacturers opt to have the parts produced by another party using a low-volume production approach, sometimes involving 3D printing.

While at first this seems quite practical for the manufacturer, it introduces a number of new challenges, not the least of which is risking the integrity of the intellectual property involved. This is because the digital file representing the product is sent to the remote facility, perhaps operated by others.

A number of bad things could occur:

  • The digital asset is copied and sent to others, or perhaps SOLD to others

  • The digital asset is altered, compromising the quality of the production parts

  • More copies of the part are produced than required, and sold by the manufacturing facility on the side

The problem is that there is no assurance of anything once the file is transferred. It’s almost as if the original manufacturer was “giving away” their property. Manufacturers have literally no idea what is happening with their file.

LEO Lane hopes to solve these and other issues.

Their approach is a cloud-based service that appears to act as a kind of “relay” between suitable 3D print services and a manufacturer’s digital parts inventory.

They’ve created the concept of a “Limited Edition Object” (hence LEO), that replaces the full digital file that’s transferred between parties. The LEO includes a modified form of STL format they call “LSTL”, which adds a number of factors. For example, they could restrict the type of machine it’s to be printed on, or the type of materials. In this way they can begin to guarantee the quality of prints received.

Screenshot from LEO Lane’s cloud system to examine the history of 3D model use [Source: LEO Lane]

Screenshot from LEO Lane’s cloud system to examine the history of 3D model use [Source: LEO Lane]

As you might imagine, this requires a complex protocol between the digital inventory owner, the LEO Lane cloud system, and the manufacturing partner. It appears that a manufacturing partner must implement these protocols using LEO Lane’s system development kit and APIs. But once done, the service is open to receive secure print requests through LEO Lane from any client.

At all times the actual digital design remains on the original manufacturer’s servers; LEO Lane merely provides a secure gateway through which a third party can properly receive instructions for producing the item.

It seems that LEO Lane has signed up and implemented the protocols with Shapeways, i.materialise and SAP, all of whom appear to be full participants in the LEO Lane ecosystem. I suspect there may be more, but depending on the complexity of integration, it may be limited to only larger companies. I am surprised they have not yet signed on any industrial 3D print services, as they would be a natural fit for this type of service.

Who is this for? Their target market appears to be manufacturers wishing to implement a digital inventory with on-demand production, but who are concerned about the security of their designs.

How many companies could be in that position? A great deal, I think.

Via LEO Lane

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