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Perfection in Protection, Licensing, and Security

IP Protection and Entitlement Management Across the Digital Manufacturing Chain

April 2020
Author: med_wibu-systems
IP Protection and Entitlement Management Across the Digital Manufacturing Chain

Since the first 3D printing machine was unveiled back in 1984, industrial use was the main focus. However, it was not until early patents expired in 2009 and consumer models came to market that industry discovered several new and innovative ways to use 3D printers. The result? Industries from healthcare through automotive and aerospace manufacturing now integrate 3D printing into all aspects of parts manufacturing. Such integration incudes R&D, design prototyping, and now even multi-material parts on demand. Some industry observers think that 3D printing (or additive manufacturing as some now call it) will usher in an industrial revolution of its own within the Industry 4.0 movement. Couple this growing use of 3D printing technology with the move to outsourcing as a strategic component of corporate profitability and you create an environment for unintended consequences. Such repercussions include design theft, industrial espionage, counterfeit parts and cyberattack.

Let’s take a closer look at these threats:

  • Design Theft: With the ability to send print files to outsourced 3D printing shops, there is potential for outright theft of the files. Such files may contain patented designs or other forms of Intellectual Property. Manufacturers need to ensure that if such a file is stolen by nefarious actors, it becomes unusable and unreadable, even through hacker’s reverse engineering tools.
  • Counterfeiting: Manufacturers must be able to control quantities printed in outsourced facilities and guarantee that unauthorized “third shifts” are not producing extra parts for the gray market or for rebranding as competitive designs. Counterfeiting consumer products can have a severe economic effect on one company. But, counterfeiting medical device or aircraft parts can have an impact on a whole country.
  • Cyberattacks: 3D printers are increasingly likely to be connected to a network, making them vulnerable to cyberattacks. Using a connected printer as a SPAM-bot has already happened. But more worrisome is the possibility that bad actors might tamper with design files or the printer’s firmware to directly modify designs or to introduce hard-to-detect defects. Such design modifications or defects could have a devastating impact in time of critical need.

These challenges raise many questions. For example, who is allowed to access the designs – when, where, and how often? To answer that most basic question, one must follow the value chain from the digital design of an object to the eventual finished product as there are many independent, yet interlocked, stakeholders who are involved in the process. The very first player is the object’s designer who has created a 3D blueprint of the piece with a specialized software tool (most likely a CAD package). 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 steps 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 manufacturing 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.

Taking a holistic look at the process, it is clear that a system is needed to protect the design, underlying manufacturing data, and intellectual property throughout the entire digital supply chain to monetize the act of printing a third-party design. Fortunately, there are currently proven tools available with the protection and monetization capabilities across an entire digital process chain, like seen in the 3D printing model. This article, IP Protection in Additive Manufacturing, published in our recent KEYnote magazine, explains how Wibu-Systems’ CodeMeter protection and licensing platform ensures complete IP protection and entitlement management throughout the entire chain.

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