Industrial Design, UNSW Built Environment. University of New South Wales, Australia.
Keywords: 3D printed parts; IP; replacement parts; product repair; spare parts.
Abstract: 3D printing and allied digital making technologies (scanning and laser cutting) have over the last 20 years become firmly established in many product development and prototyping settings. 3D printing, in particular, has developed dramatically resulting in a multitude of low-cost desktop printers that now appeal to a broad spectrum of users from design and manufacturing professionals to individual makers. The maker movement (craftspeople, tinkerers, hackers, hobbyists, inventors and business start-ups) has been central to its development.
Makers have played a leading role in the development of low-cost 3D printers. A desire widely held by advocates for 3D printing springs from the transformative opportunities afforded by the technology that includes printing replacement parts for product repair, refurbishment and customisation. 3D printers have an inherent ability to replicate parts derived from a digital file. Since the inception of the maker movement, an ethos has been to enable the hacking, repairing and repurposing of products, thereby prolonging product lifespans.
Does 3D printing offer a viable alternative to providing spare parts to prolong product lifespans? This paper examines print to repair examples utilising personal low-cost desktop 3D print and print to order services. It discusses current constraints and opportunities that currently impact upon the wider adoption of print to repair activities. Examples, including the author’s own projects, illustrate the benefits and emerging opportunities for product repair, as well as current technological and legal constraints.
3D printing and allied digital making technologies are now being widely applied to purposes beyond their original use as a rapid prototyping product development tool. Although 3D printing has been around for over twenty years, it is now emerging as a disruptive technology (Manyika et al., 2013). It is disruptive because it enables a broader range of business and individual makers to design, build, distribute and sell products and services, thereby sidestepping the barriers of traditional manufacturing, marketing and distribution. Business models are being inverted and democratised by enabling consumers to remix, customise or create new products. Aided by Web 2.0 platforms, such as Etsy, eBay, GrabCAD, Shapeways and Thingiverse, individuals can now connect to a vast distributed network to market digital designs and 3D printed products. With lower entry barriers to creating and sharing, makers are now afforded incredible powers of production and distribution by new technologies and a globalised economy (Anderson 2012).
“The current evolution of the maker movement is an early signal of the future business landscape. While we are still adjusting to and making sense of the first wave of digital disruption led by the digitization of information, disruption is now moving into the physical and product level” (Hagel, et. al. 2014, p17).
Rise of the Replicators
3D printing is an additive manufacturing process. It prints by adding or solidifying small amounts of material at a time. These printers enable the creation of physical artefacts from a variety of materials using digital files that can easily be shared through websites and email. Recent improvements in the technology now mean that operating parts can be produced utilising a range of high performance plastic, metal and ceramic materials. While personal low cost desktop machines lack this capability, the range and performance of materials continue to improve (Torabi et al., 2014).
Fused filament is the most common technology utilised by such printers. A plastic filament, often Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) or Polylactic Acid (PLA), is extruded through a heated nozzle that follows a precise tool path to create an object in layered increments.
The maker movement, consisting of a community of craftspeople, tinkerers, hackers, hobbyists, inventors and business start-ups, has played an important role in the development of personal desktop printing. This journey is marked from the open source Reprap 3D printer, a project that originated in 2005 for dedicated enthusiasts, to the current crop of out-of-box printers that appeal to a much broader community of makers.
3D printing offers significant opportunities for creating replacement parts. It is particularly suitable for one-off or small batch production runs that enable parts to be produced on demand quickly and at low cost. This inherent benefit of the technology was recognised early on with the Reprap which was conceived to self- replicate components to build other Reprap printers (2014). Since its inception an ethos of the movement is to enable the hacking, repairing and repurposing of products. This is summed up in the light-hearted manifesto titled the “Maker’s Bill of Rights” to accessible, extensive, and repairable hardware. “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it” (Jalopy, 2005, p 154). Specific advantages for 3D printing replacement parts are defined in Table 1.
Notwithstanding the clear advantages for 3D printing spare parts, there remain disadvantages with the current technology. This is especially true for the many lower-cost desktop machines that have become available in the last few years. Personal desktop 3D printers are still in an adolescent stage of development (France, 2014). Few have the performance and reliability that we expect from other equipment. Printers are often temperamental and require surveillance while printing. Parts will often fail to print as planned, requiring modifications to the part design and machine settings. Personal desktop machines are limited by material choice. ABS and PLA plastics are available in a limited range of coloured filaments. Print characteristics of each material, such as shrinkage, warping and surface texture will often vary. Preparing or creating a part design requires knowledge and skill. Additionally, scanning technology is still in its infancy. Raw scans inevitably require cleaning up in 3D software. Creating or reverse engineering a part from scratch requires knowledge and 3D modelling skill. Unlike the ubiquitous inkjet or laser paper printer, 3D printers are inherently more complicated that the keyboard command ‘ctrl+p’.
A distinctive feature of 3D printing is that objects can be copied and shared. This raises concerns regarding intellectual property (IP), but how a part is protected remains uncertain since digital property rights are a poorly defined field (ACIP, 2014). A 3D printed part exists as two separate elements – a physical part (the object) and the digital file. Copyright exists automatically with a digital file (by virtue of authorship), but it is uncertain how it applies to a 3D printed functional part (Weinberg, 2015). However, a part may be protected as a Registered design and in certain circumstances, if the part is independent from other components and has a new functional advantage a patent may be sought to protect it. In Australia, using a 3D printer to make a part that is identical or substantially similar to a registered design is an infringement (Miller, 2014). The Australian Designs Act states “Registered designs protect the visual appearance of a product, in accordance with the Act” (Designs Act, 2003) While sharing the data to print the same part is not an infringement of design rights it may infringe copyright or other rights.
Additionally, with these specific regard to spare parts, where parts are used to restore the external appearance of a product, must fit with other parts, or are purely functional designs they are not protectable (L. Miller. personal communication, 20 February 2015).
Clarity regarding IP protection is missing. Disruptive digital technologies such as 3D printing highlight these inadequacies. In Australia, the Advisory Council on Intellectual Property (ACIP) is currently reviewing registered design law. In the course of their review they found:
“In particular, technology is transforming the nature of design and making ‘virtual’ or software designs more important, but design protection is tied to whole, physical products. Further, 3D printing and scanning technologies enable online circulation of designs but such activities are not captured by design law and, in at least some cases, copyright may be of no assistance”. (ACIP, 2014, p. 2)
In Europe and the United States, the law and how it applies on these matters varies. This adds complexity to how IP is managed in the common situation of a file being hosted on a web server in one country but utilised for printing parts in another. Web-based file sharing platforms and 3D printing bureaus have similar concerns. A leading 3D printing bureau, Shapeways request that creators of 3D designs do not infringe other people’s IP rights. They focus upon copyright and have a takedown procedure for designs that may infringe IP (Shapeways 2015). Thingiverse is described as, “a thriving design community for discovering, making, and sharing 3D printable things” (Thingiverse 2015) and encourage users or use creative commons licensing. Another web based service, Kazzata, claims to be “an online spare part marketplace and CAD file repository, making it dramatically easier to access obsolete or rare parts via 3D printing” (Kazzata, 2015). The service attempts to crowd source designers and engineers to ‘reconstruct’ spare parts based upon user requests though there are few examples and little evidence of much activity. Kazzata’s terms-of-use only briefly mention IP. Their emphasis is exemption from product liability arising from warranty claims and indemnification.
Discussion: print to repair
Examples of 3D print to repair parts illustrate these points regarding technology and IP matters.
Enhancing parts: kMix blender cap
The Kenwood kMix BLX51 blender cap has a screen-printed ‘K’ trademark which is an important identifying feature of the product. The BLX51 blender is protected by European design registration (OHIM, 2015). The replacement cap reproduces the original part’s geometry but differs in colour, texture and finish and omits the trademark graphic. This partly reflects a limitation of reproducing parts on a desktop 3D printer. The reproduced cap is visually incongruous compared with the original, but maintains a consistency in form in order to fit with the existing product (Figure 1).
As a strategy to enhance the functional use of the blender cap and to sidestep any IP infringement, the part design was changed to incorporate a ring pull (Figure 2).
Figure 3.a and 3.b illustrates a further change to the cap by incorporating a citrus juicer and funnel which enables liquids to be added to the blender whilst in operation. Both modified designs make it less likely to inadvertently drop the cap into the blender, a fate that befell the original part.
Reproducing external features of a part where it needs to mate with an existing product is important but this brings into question how similar a 3D printed replacement part may become to the original part. By substantially changing features of the design where fit with the existing product is not important, the replacement part seeks to avoid IP infringement.
Improving parts: Panasonic bread maker
The second example is an improvement to solve the problem of failure of the original part. The replacement is an internal dispenser latch for a Panasonic SD257 bread maker (Figure 4).
The part is available for sale through Shapeways. The designer claims the replacement part is superior to the original due to stronger material (stainless steel) and improved design. The designer, a long-term Computer Aided Design (CAD) user and engineer describes this process:
“Whilst I measured the old part for general size and features, my own implementation is a from-scratch design. It is also not desirable to make a direct copy since stainless-steel printing tolerances and feature parameters have to be taken into account. The overall shape is similar, as it has to perform the same job and fit as a replacement.” (S. Parker) (personal communication, 19 January 2015),
Elements of this design needed to remain similar to the original to ensure a correct fit, while other elements were changed to suit the 3D printing process and reduce part costs. Printing in stainless steel creates superior part strength to the original, thus solving the problem of the original failure. In relation to potential IP infringement, the designer felt she was “replacing a small part from a high volume brand that is not available to buy from the manufacturer. I would view it the same as a third party replacement part which can be as found for example in the automotive market” (S. Parker) (personal communication, 19 January 2015).
Unavailable parts: loudspeaker bracket.
The third example is a loudspeaker stand bracket. The original part failed due to poor design. The strength of the bracket was compromised by stress fracture where there was insufficient reinforcement and material (Figure 5). Spare brackets were unavailable and the part was replicated in CAD based upon the original design but strengthened with longer side gussets, dispersing stress in the bracket.
A motivating factor for printing replacement parts is scarcity. Original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts are hard to obtain as well as cannibalized second-hand spare parts. This is particularly relevant to prolonging the lifespans of older and obsolete products where a manufacturer no longer offers after sales support. A product may become obsolete or it may become orphaned where a distributor or parts support no longer exists. American entertainer Jay Leno built a reputation for 3D printing spare parts for his extensive vintage car collection (Koten 3013). Correspondingly for older products, IP infringement is less likely to occur as Registered Design cease after a finite amount of time. In Australia this period is five years, to reapply up to a maximum of ten years (Designs Act, 2003). The EU offer Registered Design protection in five year chunks, up to a total of twenty-five years, and the US offer four year chunks, up to a maximum of fourteen years (L. Miller) personal communication, 20 February 2015).
To reproduce a part, a designer must embark on reverse engineering, capturing the precise geometry of a part, reproducing it as a 3D CAD
file, and then optimising it for printing. During this latter stage of the design process, the designer has an opportunity to improve the part. This is clearly evident with the examples presented above. In each instance, parts have been enhanced to address the failure of the original part.
Personal desktop printers are more suited to reproducing internal or hidden parts where material colour and finish is less important and ABS and PLA plastics may not meet the engineering performance specifications needed for critical components. It would be unwise to recreate critical parts where failure could cause injury or compromise safety. Product liability and warranty is another potential issue. In such circumstances who would be responsible for the failure? Table 2 summarises the desirable circumstances for 3D printing a replacement part.
There exists much excitement about 3D printing and the transformative possibilities it brings to how products are designed, manufactured, distributed and sold. Printing replacement parts demonstrates a step towards this transformation. Personal low cost desktop machines can produce functional replacements quickly and efficiently.
Online service bureaus and file sharing platforms offer a market place for makers to share, remix and trade replacement parts but technological and legal obstacles still need to be surmounted before the opportunities for printing spare parts accelerates. The technology will improve and will become more affordable, IP law will catch up, consumer perceptions and practices around obtaining parts will change and new business models will emerge with the next wave of digital technologies. When a product fails and certain replacement parts are unavailable or scarce, 3D printing offers a means for a quick and efficient repair. While the technology may herald a profusion of new and unnecessary products, it equally can be harnessed to prolong the lifespan of products that would otherwise become obsolete.
Lester Miller. Senior Associate, Allens Patent & Trade Mark Attorneys, Australia.
Susan Parker BA MIET, Associate Professor Oya Demirbilek, UNSW, Australia.
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