Given the present limitations on low-cost printers’ ability to print complex objects and electronics, it is still early for electronic component manufacturers worry about IP implications of 3D printing. For now, the greatest IP threat may be to manufacturers of goods that are already similar to what existing low-cost 3D printers are capable of outputting. Barbie’s recent news-generating 3D-printer-assisted makeover should cause toy manufacturers to pause and think about 3D printing. But according to John Blyler at Chip Design, semiconductor manufacturers should possibly start paying attention too:
What happens, though, as 3D printing technology matures – as did the consumer PC market with ever-decreasing costs and increasing capabilities? There may well come a time when 3D printers are of such quality and proliferation that they impinge upon commercial manufacturers and abuse patent and IP rights. Could the major semiconductor fabs eventually surrender low-cost, low-production-volume product lines to an army of 3D printers (see RepRap)?
This idea might not be as crazy as it seems. In a manner similar to the photo-lithography used in today’s IC manufacturing, stereo-lithography – or optical fabrication – is a 3D printing technology based on ultra-violet-curable resins. Both photo- and stereo-lithography use standard patterning techniques to create a multilayered product.
Still, Blyler has his doubts that 3D printing will ever have a major impact on the business of semiconductor manufacturers. Personally, I’m less sure that’s true.