The Real Value of 3D Printing Patents
It’s not always about revenue; sometimes patents are worth it to prove larger positioning.
Patents are a contentious part of 3D printing. Over the years we’ve seen an array of reactions to patents: backlash, fear, legal battle, simply awaiting expiration. There are a lot of patents, and more all the time in the fast-growing 3D printing field. Some are major breakthroughs; many don’t really mean all that much.
Whatever the reaction to hearing about a new filing and approval, patents are — they just are. They are present, they are a reality of business today.
Most often we think of patents as being filed to protect intellectual property and, ultimately, protect and expand revenues. The all-important bottom line is a big deal for corporations. But that isn’t the only thing behind them.
Because patents are a business reality, filing one is a business decision. So when Authentise this week announced the approval of a new patent — for its “System, Method and Program Product for Digital Production Management” — the initial assumption was easy: they’ve decided to protect their IP.
That’s not the whole case, though.
Andre Wegner, Authentise’s Founder and CEO, confesses that as a rule he doesn’t “care much for patents.” So why file one? Especially a patent that itself is “focusing on increasing intellectual property and integrity protection in digital manufacturing through streaming”?
It is ultimately a strategic move, yes, but not one that Authentise really plans for itself. Rather, it’s a move to prove a much larger business case for digital manufacturing.
“In other words,” Wegner explains in a thoughtful LinkedIn piece, “we see this patent as a shining ad to the industry as to where the technology is moving. To get there, we have to work together with others. To work with others, we have to show them there’s value in it. That we think there’s enough value to file a patent.”
Patents can hinder or slow innovation, he acknowledges, but it’s the execution that matters, and really “the pace of innovation is relentless, getting faster.”
Phrases like “paradigm shift” have become so ubiquitous in talking about 3D printing and Industry 4.0 that frankly I’m glad there’s finally a widely-available eye-rolling emoji. But underlying the hype and excitement is a reality that paradigms actually are shifting. The way we think about production is changing, and digital technologies are driving completely new workflows from design to delivery.
And change is scary — financially.
Especially to The Big Guys, those global operations, the multi-billion-dollar conglomerates that drive massive economic trends. Large-scale change is incremental and often driven by more agile operations that can afford to take a risk, but overhauling operations in a massive corporation is anything but agile. Which doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
So Wegner and the Authentise team filed their patent as more a show of viability than to profit directly: “We know we will probably never make money [off] this patent,” he acknowledges. Corporations, he adds, “won’t do more than pilot such solutions in the short term.”
So this step is for longer-term thinking, when the market is ready to change on a larger scale.
Market demand testing has shown the Authentise team that “there is just not any immediate need” for their IP-protecting software solutions for additive manufacturing — because “there are currently not enough drivers to force companies to shift from their existing supply chains procedures, which protect quality by enforcing standards and commercial contracts.”
“That will shift, eventually,” Wegner continues. “We continue to believe that a significant percentage of everything will be made locally, on-demand, by digital manufacturing equipment. That will force a change in operating procedures. Taking this step is what this patent is there to encourage, not to benefit from. It seems counter-intuitive but once corporates have the incentive to get into digital manufacturing, patents such as this can give them the reassurance that a solution to some of the pressing problems they will then face. Business model innovation is harder if you have to innovate every part of the pie. With this patent, we can help ease the journey to a new manufacturing paradigm.”
The messaging with this specific patent is two-fold:
Show a viable offering that makes a strong business case
Underscore the inevitability of the need for offerings like this and the importance of investing in distributed manufacturing now
So sometimes the conversation about patents isn’t one of bottom lines and selfish guarding of innovation: sometimes it’s about a big picture.