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IP Protection in Additive Manufacturing

3D printing has morphed over time from a plaything for elite nerds to a viable technology for the future of industry. Companies now have the ability to print components in a wide range of materials on-demand when and where they need them. Numerous international brands have begun to offer devices for the additive manufacturing of e.g. prototypes or spare parts. Even though the printing process itself is deceptively simple, it is an extreme feat of technological innovation, and it remains quite a costly proposition. But as has always been the case with groundbreaking technologies, time will overcome these growing pains and establish 3D printing as a regular part of the industrial experience.

IP protection

Where are we heading?

The vision pursued by many manufacturing businesses is the ability to produce third-party components right in their own factories in order to respond flexibly to demand in the market, without having to go through their complex supply chains. Ignoring the technological challenge for a minute, this poses another important issue that needs to be considered from the outset: Who is allowed to access the designs – when, where, and how often? A system is needed to protect the underlying data and to monetize the act of printing a third-party design.

Who is involved?

Following the chain from the digital design of an object to the eventual finished product, there are several independent, but interlocked actors who all have a stake in the process. The very first player is the object’s designer who has created a 3D blueprint of the piece (e.g. a chair armrest) with a specialized software tool. He would be interested in protecting his blueprints from theft and in having some means of tracking how many of his pieces are produced, irrespective of when and where in the world this happens.

Before the piece can physically be printed, the data still needs to be processed in a variety of ways. The 3D design data needs to be translated into a layered model, because the actual printers create the pieces additively, i.e. layer upon layer. The material properties (plastic, metal etc.) also need to be considered, as they might change over time or with changing temperatures, which might, in turn, affect the printing process. All of these questions are already covered by dedicated and sophisticated software packages that do the necessary calculations and steer the actual printing process.

These packages do not have to come in one proprietary suite from one software publisher but can be mixed and matched. This makes IP protection through the entire chain an even more complex problem. Finally, the ability to count the number of printed objects must be included in the printer management itself to ensure meaningful controls over the process.
What could a complete IP protection landscape look like?

Even though 3D printing is still in its infancy, IP protection and usage counting can draw on a long history from other areas of application. Encryption, authentication, and licensing have been the bread-and-butter business of Wibu-Systems for more than three decades, and the tried-and-tested CodeMeter technology already includes all the pieces to add state-of-the-art protection and monetization capabilities across the entire digital process chain.

It all begins with the secure encryption of the CAD data (STL files) and the other data processed en route to the actual printer. The CAD software and other applications involved in the other steps need to be able to decrypt the protected data, process it, and encrypt it again before handing it down the line. The cryptographic toolbox of CodeMeter API has the necessary routines on board to integrate encryption and decryption easily and quickly in the various software products and ensure complete IP protection throughout the chain.

At the same time, the security of the entire system rises and falls with the secure storage and allocation of the cryptographic keys needed for encryption and decryption. With CodeMeter, they can be stored securely as licenses in a hardware device (CmDongle), software (CmActLicense), or cloud (CmCloud) container to match the needs of the rights holder. The licenses can also be assigned specific rights, such as restrictions on the feature set or the expiry time. The license used for printing can also be given a quantity counter to track or limit the number of objects the user is allowed to produce.

Managing and safely distributing licenses (rights) is already handled perfectly by CodeMeter License Central. The cloud-based approach allows rights to be allocated to users around the clock and around the globe (and, if need be, offline if the user’s system has no direct internet connection). A choice of interfaces is available to allow the integration of back office systems and pave the way for extensive automation.

Now, if a company wants to 3D print a specific component of a third-party supplier for use in their production, they can place an order in the supplier’s online store. They would then receive an encrypted file with the design and the rights they need to print the number of objects they have paid for. This gives them enormous flexibility in terms of time and quantities, which can be a substantial financial advantage, especially if the producer and user of the component are based on opposite sides of the world. The original designer of the component can rest assured that his valuable know-how is secure and indeed reaching new target groups and new markets via the novel distribution channel.

Where are we now?

Additive manufacturing is considered a future market – but the future starts today. Many sectors of industry have already realized its potential for small production runs (e.g. in medical technology or consumer and designer goods). This great future potential will, however, be influenced substantially by the fact that the people printing the objects are not necessarily the people who own the rights to them. There are also opportunities for dedicated agencies that can take over 3D printing jobs for other businesses in their vicinity. All of this makes uncompromising IP protection and flexible monetization options an absolute must for the technology.

With CodeMeter, Wibu-Systems is already offering a secure and long-established system that can handle all digital value chains in additive manufacturing.