Categories: Protection

Protecting and Monetizing IP in Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing has truly arrived. When the first 3D printer was introduced back in 1987, it was the start of a long and often arduous journey until we learned how to print 3D objects at the required quality and at a competitive price. In all this time, one issue was often and undeservedly pushed to the sidelines: What about protecting 3D printing data from piracy? And how can print jobs be tracked and billed correctly and securely for everybody involved?

The Rise of Additive Manufacturing

As so often happens when highly complex technology is concerned, the story is not one of a single solution or one-time eureka moment, but of long and patient work on countless individual problems and issues that needed lots of time and experience to solve. People had already began thinking about 3D printing in the 1970s, but it would take until 1987 for the physicist Chuck Chull to come up with the first working model. A generation later, it has become normal for objects to be designed on one side and created on the other side of the world, even combining different materials. What started as rapid prototyping, i.e. the ability to quickly produce prototypes of an object, has turned into a means to produce individual parts, custom products, or even entire production runs. Now, manufacturers are working hard on integrating additive manufacturing even deeper in their production processes. And why should they not? The benefits are obvious: Complex and unwieldy supply chains can be trimmed back, the carbon footprint of each product suddenly shrinks significantly, and on-demand production without slow and complex tool engineering means a faster time to market and the ability to roll out new business models.

This is not to say that there are no challenges remaining in the field. But one key aspect that is an essential element of any viable additive manufacturing business models keeps getting overlooked. The designs and data for additive manufacturing need to be protected at every link in the chain, and there needs to be a transparent and tamper-proof way to count, track, and bill the number of printed objects.

The Additive Manufacturing Process

To understand why this matters, we need to understand how a 3D design becomes a printed object and who is involved in that process. It all starts with the development of a digital object, which contains or represents a crucial piece of intellectual property. This asset needs to be protected, because only protected IP can be marketed in any sensible way. This should not be a problem if the holder of that IP is actually the same person or business doing the processing and printing as well. But the 3D printing market is moving in another direction: In many cases, the digital object will be only one component of a whole array of pieces that an integrator would assemble into a finished product, and the printing happens outside of the direct control of the IP’s owner. Commercial concerns mean that the actual printing business will be dominated more and more by specialized 3D service providers. In essence: there has to be a way to protect a digital object, but also to legitimately guide it through an entire process chain with many different actors involved.

Prepress and Printer: Different Licenses for Different Purposes

At first sight, this seems to be an unsolvable proposition, but the same situation has long been solved in the software business, where software protection and license management are (or should be) commonplace. The CodeMeter technology by Wibu-Systems uses tough cryptographic standards to encrypt digital IP, while also making it easy to distribute the necessary keys to handle it in the form of licenses – securely, around the world and around the clock, and fully integrated in existing process chains.

A concrete example can illustrate how this works. Imagine an automotive enterprise that is taking its B2B parts business into the digital realm. It already has a shop system in place where registered commercial clients can order parts. This system is integrated seamlessly with the company’s order management system to make the entire process as smooth and automated as possible.Today, the spare parts are physically delivered through a well-oiled, but complex logistics machine. But tomorrow, they will be sent as encrypted files, ready for download.

The buyer would receive a specific processing license to prepare the printing process. Another order-specific printing license then defines how many copies the customer can create of the object he has bought. The illustration captures this process in a nutshell.

The entire process chain for additive manufacturing combined with protection and monetization

CodeMeter technology provides the protection and license management link between each piece in the process. The 3D designs and print jobs are encrypted with standard technology that is available as libraries for many target platforms and programming languages, including support for embedded systems thanks to Wibu-Systems’ long-standing experience in the industrial sphere. The makers of prepress software and 3D printing systems have finished libraries available to integrate IP protection in their additive manufacturing portfolio. Depending on the conditions on the ground or the desired level of protection, the cryptographic keys can be stored on a physical CmDongle, a software container (CmActLicense), or in the CmCloud.

The encrypted 3D data can only be accessed if the right prepress license is available, and a printer can only create physical pieces if a printing license with sufficient print jobs is present. Both license types include the necessary cryptographic keys; in the case of the printing license, there is also a secure unit counter to keep track of how many copies of an object have actually been printed.

The popular CodeMeter License Central management system is available for managing and distributing both licenses. It can be readily integrated into existing e-commerce or order management systems with its set of webservice interfaces. In the ideal case, the licenses would be delivered simply by online activation, but file transfer options are also possible for offline or otherwise separated workstations or printers.

Vision Meets Reality

Does this sound like science fiction that will never work in the hard reality of industrial manufacturing? Nothing could be further from the truth: Our automotive example is taken from real life. Working with a popular 3D printer maker and using the technology made by Wibu-Systems, the company is going live with this novel business model in 2022. It is the first tentative step into the digital future of additive manufacturing. Confucius knew: Even the longest journey starts with a single step. And we are excited about what we will experience along the road.


KEYnote 43 – Edition Spring/Summer 2022

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