In this episode senior associate and patent attorney Paul Roscoe, and partner, solicitor and trade mark attorney Chris Hoole, are joined by 3D printing specialist and CEO/co-founder of Promake, Professor Jason Laing.
This episode will help manufacturers to understand the IP risks associated with 3D printing, how smart materials could provide anti-counterfeiting measures, and the direction of innovation in this technology area.
If you have any questions on this episode, IP in general, or would like to suggest a topic, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About The Greenshoots Podcast
The Greenshoots Podcast by Appleyard Lees is a conversation about intellectual property, focused on what matters most to innovators, inventors and brand owners, right now. In each episode, intellectual property specialists discuss the essential issues facing those who create, or protect, IP.
Welcome to The Greenshoots Podcast by Appleyard Lees, a conversation for those who own, manage, or protect intellectual property.
Paul: I’m Paul Roscoe, a senior associate and patent attorney at Appleyard Lees. With me is Appleyard Lees’ partner and dual qualified trademark attorney and solicitor Chris Hoole.
Chris: Hi Paul.
Paul: Also joining us is special guest Professor Jason Laing, CEO and cofounder of ProMake and 3D printing specialist.
Paul: Today we will discuss innovation trends we are seeing across the field of 3D printing both in industry and in global patent filings, and talk about counterfeiting and the IP risks associated with this technology. Jason, why don’t you start by telling us your background in 3D printing and how you came to cofound ProMake?
Jason: Well, my journey with 3D printing is quite a bizarre one really, I’ve been involved with 3D printing since the early 1990s, so about 27 odd years now, started out in the jewellery industry where we used 3D printing to design and manufacture jewellery, because that’s just my original background was is I am a jeweller and diamond dealer by trade, and traveled around the world. And then, the last I moved into 3D printing, everything around lifestyle products, meaning shoes, handbags, cosmetics, fragrance, all product development in composites, getting back to South Africa is where originally from, couldn’t get a job in the field I was in.
So I ended up moving across to maxillofacial reconstructive, so making custom implants to rebuild people’s faces for surgery complications after gunshots and oncology and birth defects. So the spectrum of 3D printing, is rough, is really, really quite broad as far as the materials go and the uses. So that’s my journey and that’s how it’s begun. And how ProMake Limited came about was I used to cycle bicycles professionally, and after what we call a high speed handstand as a [00:02:00] joke about it, I was training for South African championships on the velodromes, and one of my forks of my bike snapped and I hit the deck pretty hard, and I broke 32 bones in my body and collapsed both lungs, and major brain injuries, and the rest of it.
And because of the injuries, they wanted to amputate my arm at the shoulder, and because all the work that we did, in rebuilding people’s faces, we ended up using the same tech to actually put me back together. So I design my own surgery, design my implants, designed my own cutting guides, reduced the surgery time because of a head injury that I had, and I got to keep the arm, and I got to be able to kind of get back to use again. And from there, we cracked a joke saying that we can harmonically tune bone, and in January 2019, I was put on a task to reverse engineer the ossicles, the little bones inside your ear. And in January 2019, we did the world’s first 3D printed inner ear transplant putting us in the same category as the first heart transplant in South Africa. And that’s what accelerated to be coming across the UK and now getting to work with the likes of materials for such as graphene, which some of you may be familiar with. It’s a single layer atom sheet, but because of the principles and the conductivity and the way we can program the graphene has accelerated into making smart materials of 3D printing, so, as I say, the journey is a very bizarre one, it’s a long winded one, so sorry for that, but yeah, it gives you a bit of indication where I came from.
Paul: I think you condensed it quite well there, Jason, that said, that’s a very long story cut fairly short, I think, and possibly one of the most fascinating introductions that I’ve heard on one of these podcasts.
Jason: I did a TED Talk on it called how we hacked my body back to life, you’ll see it on YouTube.
Paul: So I’m curious to know what type of equipment you had to use then, how long ago it was, and what you are using now – where I’m going with this is more – so one of the things that Chris and I were speaking about beforehand was we started in our professions around the same time [00:04:00] and at that time, there was a large concern amongst patent professionals of the challenge associated with 3D printing, for example, classically you would draft a patent, you would get some claims granted for a product, and then, you could effectively enforce that product against manufacturers. And then, there’s a concern that if everybody has their own 3D printer at home, they can manufacture their own parts, there’s a personal use defense and, practically speaking, we’re not going to be going around suing everybody, individually. I’ve not certainly not got a 3D printer at home, I don’t know whether if I did get one of these ones I’ve seen advertised, it’s capable of doing what you’re talking about. So I’m interested to hear as an industry specialist, has that actually played out? Do you see it ever playing out?
Jason: It’s very interesting, you bring this to the table because the complexity of it where it was even five years ago, even two years ago compared to where it is now, the machines that we use were laser sintering machines, so you’re not using the thermoplastic extrusion based, what we call FDM filament machines, just because anything with surgery with us, if we’re anything under 50 microns out, it’s rejected, your tolerances are too far off, you will have a failure and your risk and mitigation of issues compounding from that is just too high. So you got to make sure that your part is to spec. So we use laser sintering with a nylon machine, we take nylon powder, and with a laser fuse the particles together, and the dimensional accuracy on your X, Y and Z platforms really come into play.
So these are very high end professional, environmentally controlled machines that even down to the room temperature to the oxygen levels, to their flusters argon gas, there’s a lot that goes on to, you know, these were seen as the high spec machines back then, but if you really come down to it, what are you going to start making [00:06:00] product and turning it into end use products in quickly, in a quick format, the problem that is it comes down to surface finish. If you know what injection moulding is like, it comes out, you can have like a mirror finish if you’d like. 3D printing, being layer by layer at this stage can get you a very, very smooth finish short, and you can get probably your tolerances correct, but there’s certain areas of when it comes to surface texture and surface, kind of, a deformation – we don’t say deformation, I’m referring to like the corners being rounded, or the accuracy of the corner, the 90 degree corner, these are elements all based on how the pot sits within the machine while it’s printing, and what angle it sits at. Because something that’s sitting upside down or something that’s lying on the side, we are going to have different dimensional accuracies overall. So you got to look at these things.
But what’s actually we’ve noticed happening is the machines are not the problem that we’re having to worry about, it’s going to be the materials, because materials coming into play are becoming a lot more precision, and the outputs of them are coming into a lot more precision features. And to try and give an example of this, you’re getting smart materials come to the table that can be a thermoplastic or a nylon, or anything along those lines and now became a key used as electro-conductivity. So is it the design you’re now looking for, or, is it going to be the outcome function of the pot, meaning, if you have a part that you, let’s say, a cup, right? So you print a cup – dimensionally, you can print that; yes, you might not get the greater surface finish, but that might not be what you’re looking for. You might be looking for, I want to know what the pH level or the conductivity or the temperature of that, or the weight of that solution is in the cup. So I’d be able to take smart materials that you can pull data out of. That opens a new door when it comes to design, and I think that’s more scary than anybody copying your product, because they’re going to come – we are all living in a digital world now, and it’s the data aspect, yeah.
Paul: Well, that that brings in [00:08:00] lots of interesting questions, even particularly this as an IP podcast, I’d love to talk to you more about in the background with printing your own parts to rebuild yourself, Jason, but I think this brings in lots of interesting questions from an IP perspective, because now you’re talking about smart materials, and we have artificial intelligence, and we understand that to an extent in that you have software, the software reprogrammed, and the artificial intelligence is generally linked to that software and that coding, so the result tends to – you can tend to link the result to the coder. Here, we’re talking about smart materials. Now, here, in my very lay understanding of that, is that it could include anything from, like you said, conductivity, to testing the pH levels, to – 4D printing is something I’ve heard of now as well, and that’s materials that can change shape and the like. And when we start talking about smart materials and thinking what, how are you connecting that coder or that software, how does that work? And then, if you have that material, creating some new IP, or something that I was thinking about in terms of the 4D printing and the designs, altering by themselves autonomously almost, can they do that, can they change autonomously, is that where you see it, and therefore, if you can change a design autonomously or artificially, who owns those rights? I mean, that brings in a whole new world of questions, isn’t it?
Jason: Absolutely. Because we talk about, like, as you mentioned, 4D – 4D is changing the shape after it’s being printed into something. So by adding another element to that saying there’s not going to be pulling data for thermal conductivity or flexural strain or pressure loading and some of those, is that not going to a 5D realm? And then when it comes to [00:10:00] design, where does the design principles sit with the actual physical shape, does it sit with the physical function, does it fit with the physical data output and then is all three together a design function, you know, it changes the game as to where it’s going. And then, you got to look at what sectors it goes into, and it just becomes this tree or spider web of who owns one at what given point, and how can you do licensing when it comes to that, how do you do RP stacking. And if there’s multiple industries in play, who owns what part of their kind of like IP tree essentially. But this is the future where it’s going at, so it’s not so much the design. We’re working now with generative design. So you can take a part and you can make it perform better with less weight and shape, but that could add a whole new feature to what you’re doing, so that’s going to be, I feel sorry, for you guys, it must be very difficult to figure out where to go next to.
Chris: Yeah, I think that’s a very interesting thing. So I obviously work more on drafting and prosecution of patents. So, I mean, one of the things that it’s good to ask manufacturers is, is it possible to make this part by 3D printing. That’s what classically we would do, and to make sure we have a claim to the G-code, because the European Patent Office have actually put in their guidelines that that is an allowable claim, as long as it has certain – satisfies certain criteria. For example, it has to reference the product, it has to have operating instructions that are adapted to control an additive manufacturing device to fabricate that product. Without that, then it could just be more like a CAD file which would not be patentable. But as long as it has those steps in there, then the implied use has a technical effect, but it also what you mentioned there about smart materials and data collection. We then have to consider whether, as a normal question, we should be asking whether they’re using some of these materials like graphene, and whether we should include things like a method claim for harvesting the data.
Paul: And going back to almost the very beginning of this conversation, Jason, you mentioned that the forks on your bike failed.
Paul: Is this something now that could potentially be avoided with the use of smart materials, do you see the technology is evolving in such a way that materials can identify when they have small errors or the small breaks in them that aren’t visible to the eye?
Jason: Absolutely, I mean, if I take my whole journey of my years of career, so go from the jewellery industry, we worked with hallmarks on gold that tell you what the specific gold density is within your ring. Right? In the medical field, you got to have certain compliances to make sure whatever medical device is covered by a certain regulatory controls in the manufacture meter, the ISO 13485 certifications are issued. So now we’re able to have smart materials that kind of have a whole marking system or coded in the system, you know, would change the game as to how pots actually get manufactured, and the reliability of it, because with like autonomous vehicles, unmanned autonomous vehicles coming about, I always keep saying that when you get into a car, not knowing what the health of a vehicle is, it was going to drive you around.
But if their vehicle was able to tell you based on all the materials and the specifications that are kind of hallmark, that are not digitally accessible through a portal of some sort, that the car could actually go, sorry, I can’t take you, a certain part of my car is actually not functioning to spec, and I’m not talking about the mechanical function, I am actually talking about the material itself, like, the frame or the component structure of a part or something like that. It would say it’s fatigued to beyond its use and/or it’s overheating or whatever, it can actually return itself back to its depo to be able to then be kind of health check, that’s kind of along the lines, I think, we could potentially see it going.
Had I gone on to a black, [00:14:00] I don’t know their framework, but yes I know who the frame was made by, but I don’t know what the processor went through. How do I even know? Because it’s got a brand, and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.
Paul: How do you see the role of this in terms of anti-counterfeiting measures?
Jason: It’s going to – there’s definitely going to be a massive change, because the way, like, take, for instance, we work a lot with graphene and what we call functionalisation of graphene. And what that is, is we’re taking certain groups within the graphene, and we do a special process, which is not a chemical process, a plasma based process that binds to other materials. So it’s actually becoming like a single, like, I’m trying to do it in layman’s terms, not go in too scientific here, we kind of create our own molecule essentially of a polymer. And the way we can stack the graphene or we can work with it, we can actually almost make a code. So if we create even digital inks, you can actually then go, well, hang on, now with your, like, your NFCs or near field readers, essentially, you Could bring a phone close to it and tag and go, based on what I’m getting feedback, and the specification of the material is made the requirements based on the hallmarks and the compliance spec. Is it made by the producer, or is it being counterfeited? But you wouldn’t be able to have a counterfeit because that particular goes down to molecular level, and you would have to try and reverse engineer what we’ve done, and it’s very difficult to turn it into a product. It’s the same as like Coca Cola, and we can see what’s on the label, but you don’t know what their mixing ratio is, as a man on the ground.
Paul: So that’s a phenomenal leap forward, isn’t it? If you can input a code within the material itself, it’s not visible to the naked eye, you need that reader to be able to identify it, it cannot be counterfeited through that technology, one would think at this moment until someone finds a way of getting around it. And ultimately, these things often happen, but it seems like this is a very good method of preventing counterfeiting products to have that molecular level type of security in the [00:16:00] design. Now, question is, do you see that Jason as being cost prohibitive, or, is that something that can be produced on a mass scale? So I’m thinking here, it sounds fantastic, in theory, to have anti-counterfeiting security measures within the polymers themselves, or whatever the material is. But in reality, is it a costly exercise, or do you see this as something that could be more wide scale?
Jason: That actually is more beneficial on a mass scale perspective, but there’s another spin that comes with that, because you’re now able to track the materials, you know, if you go find a plastic bottle floating in a river, and you took it out of the river, you know nothing about that plastic bottle. You know, it might say PETG or might have some form of other material on it. But how do you know, because you’ve got a hallmark and it doesn’t – anybody can put a hallmark on a mould, but how do you know? So what happens if the manufacturers, from an environmental point of view, had the ability to bring that material back and actually knocked back, and as you know, back in the day, you used to, you had your glass coke bottles in the shops and used to get back, you get a refund for your glass bottle, that’s where I came from these two, but a plastic could actually start adding a new value, because you will actually know by running a potential current through their plastic or whatever, you will know what the properties are, digitally, on a bottle that’s been made years down the line, and even if it’s efficient to be able to be repurposed or recycled, and if it’s recycled, you know what the values are left in that material.
So when you’re putting it back, you’re creating inefficiency of recycling or repurposing, and you could just say, well, because it was using bottles, you are not allowed to use bottles in medical, but we may be able to use it for, I don’t know, so industrial application because of the policy or procedure, and that is slightly different from the standard. So you can actually use it based on actual algorithms, and you can actually make a resell of their plastic bottles, so add new value. But I think it’d be add – retains the game as well as the plastic world goes. [00:18:00]
Paul: And presumably as well, again, theorising here, it doesn’t just need to be the whole plastic bottle, you could have plastic parts within another product. So take, for example, an article of clothing, jumper or a T-Shirt, you could add another element in that piece of clothing that has no writing on it, no hallmarks, nothing visible, but when you’re scanned, you’re able to trace the origination of that product, which is quite phenomenal, or whatever it may be, shoes, trainers, things where you can put in a part of a polymer and doesn’t need to be the whole thing, it can just be a small part, but that part can then trace back to the origins, which I think would be an absolute game changer.
Jason: Absolutely. I mean, you could even, to the point in, like, writing in the label, in the ink that goes into the label on the writing, you can have a coding in that label.
Paul: How would you do that?
Jason: So you work with different types of nanotubes within graphene. Graphene always just exists in flat sheets. There’s different sizes and different ways of that are kind of compounded together. And there’s certain way in layman’s terms is you stack them to some degree that can create a biological code, and by doing that, you then create a resonance and there’s a whole frequency range that comes with that, and I should get a code number, a signature that comes from it. And from that you get your – there’s just no ways to hack it, you’d have to try and break down that ink, you’d have to reverse engineer that coding in, and you’d have to do the entire scripting that’s on that. So you might just remove the whole thing from the device itself, and there’s just, there’s no ways.
Paul: So you could even get it in a logo presumably then, converting it?
Jason: Yeah. You know, sports brand of clothing or in a high end fashion where you’d be able to tag it and go, well, this is legit, 20-50 years from now like a hallmark on a jewelry piece, you would know it’s legit. And there’s been a knock off, because how else would you know?
Paul: That is a phenomenal game changer, I think in the world events, in terms of you could imagine as well working with border force perhaps where the goods are being imported. And this is not just important for clothing, but I’m thinking particularly for products that have a health and safety aspect to them, you mentioned autonomous vehicles, that’s an area where there’s a significant amount of counterfeit activity. If you are able to trace those materials and verify the safety of them, it’s not just, you know, this is about saving lives potentially as well, isn’t it?
Jason: Absolutely. Because, I mean, like, pharmaceuticals, imagine counterfeit pharmaceuticals, if it goes into a packaging, that code is then created during the manufacturing process at the right facilities. So it’s not like anybody could hack the system, and run on their machines in another country, so it would ever be a whole linked up, secure, it can even go through blockchain type scenario to develop a way to make sure that whatever that product’s coming from a reliable pharmaceutical company, it actually is legit.
Chris: It’s mind blowing really, isn’t it?
Paul: If we were going to summarise this and just put like some final thoughts on it, I mean, what would you see as the main prediction for the future in this area, what activities are you going to be focusing on with ProMake?
Jason: So obviously, our core focus is how we are functionalising and coding the graphene to the needs of, you know, making sure that it’s for the benefit and the wellbeing of the human species, and not as humans, across the globe, for anything. But to be able to really bring it down to something really, like, put into layman’s terms, I think it’s going to come down to how we code these things, and the types of coding, so we put into, how do we protect those coding, whether it be re-coding the material to perform a certain way, or give us data a certain way, or give us feedback a certain way, and how do we recycle and bring those back to the world again. It’s going to be quite interesting. It’s really out there right now.
Paul: And a part of it, have you seen an increase in patent filings in the realm of 3D printing recently, [00:22:00] because I imagine there was a big, steep curve in the sort of 2000s and then, maybe, tapered off, plateaued, are we seeing another increase now?
Jason: I did look at the patent filings in the IPC class for additive manufacturing, and since about 2013, there was a sharp uptick in the number of filings around then. And that has continued, I don’t know whether you call exponentially, I suppose, it’s more like linearly after a sharp change, and currently, globally, there’s about over 20,000 applications a year of patent families, and that goes up till 2021.
Paul: So it’s still a huge area of interest, then.
Paul: I wonder if with the technology that’s developing, whether we will see a rise in patent filings continuing. Jason, is it a focus of yourself in your business now to protect the intellectual property rights behind the technologies that you’re inventing?
Jason: A lot of the products that will be coming going forward, that’s going to have to include a lot of data, data capture. We’ve got a, I can’t really say who it is right now, but we have a partnership with a massive entity, should I say, that works a lot around on data side. So there’s a lot of IP that we have to protect going forward, and so, we’re already there, we’re already doing it; and it’s not going to just be us, it’s going to be a lot of people soon, so it’s going to be very interesting.
Paul: So yeah, that looks like some really interesting developments in 3D printing, and specifically the use of smart materials. I just want to thank Chris for taking the time to come and do the podcast, and also Jason for coming and visiting us and doing the podcast, and hopefully, we’ll see him again at some point.
Thanks for listening to The Greenshoots Podcast by Appleyard Lees. If you have a question or issue you would like our IP specialists to discuss on the podcast, then tweet us @AppleyardLees or email us at email@example.com.