A Lucrative Micro-Niche for Lawyers: Additive Manufacturing / 3D Printing
Updated: Aug 15
Hints of new emerging areas of opportunity are usually discernible years before they enter the mainstream. For example, The Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School hosted one of the first seminars on 3D Printing, entitled “Is The Law Ready For The Future?” That event occurred back in May of 2013. Fast forward six years and one can only identify a few law firms that have targeted this area of opportunity. Robins Kaplan lists two attorneys in their 3D Printing Practice mainly focused on IP and business disputes; while Ice Miller identifies seven in their Additive Manufacturing/3D Printing group who “serve as advisors and counselors to 3D printing think-tanks” and claim to “also own and use 3D printers.”
When one hears the term 3D printing, it is just natural to think of it as a way to produce a small plastic desk accessory or toy you might pick up in a gift shop. But 3D printing is instead, part of a broader range of revolutionary technologies known as additive manufacturing (AM). 3D printing is a process where a physical object is created from a digital blueprint of something that’s “sliced” into thin horizontal layers and uploaded to a printer. This mode of printing refers to any kind of production in which materials are built up to create a product rather than cut, ground, drilled or otherwise reduced into shape. Initially 3D printing was merely 2D printing of layers of material, repeated over and over until a object came to fruition. Today, new methods are being developed that are far more sophisticated and powerful.
AM is now being adapted to a stunning array of different materials that will dramatically disrupt the future of manufacturing and at least 25 other different industries that I’ve been monitoring. AM is currently impacting architecture and construction; pharmaceuticals; automotive; packaging; firearms; drones; space tech; agriculture; consumer electronics; and the entertainment industry among others. Current 3D printers can produce functional part- and full-color objects from over 250 different materials, including metals, plastics, ceramics, glass, rubber, leather, stem cells, and even chocolate. And the next time you visit London, do check out Food Ink (http://foodink.io - which is called the most futuristic gourmet experience in the known universe), a restaurant where they have 3D printed the tables, the chairs, the eating utensils and even the food!
3D is one more example of what I have come to call a “tech-driven hybrid” in that it does not simply represent a substantive area of law (like intellectual property) or a specific industry (like manufacturing) but rather has potential applications across a wide range of the kinds of clients you are serving. So to simply say that you aspire to be your client’s “trusted advisor” rings hollow, should they ask you what you know about additive manufacturing and all you can muster is a shrug of your shoulders. Alternatively for those who care to explore this as a micro-niche to specialize in, the opportunities are beyond description.
3D printing has emerged from a hobby to an industrial-scale technology that is beginning an exponential growth curve. In 2015, the additive manufacturing industry grew to about $5.2 billion according to Forbes and by 2021, IDC analysts expect 3D printing’s global spend to be about $20 Billion. With newly accessible design software, we can customize anatomy-conforming stents, personalized dentistry products, adapted airplane and auto parts, or microscale fabrication products such as sensors, drug delivery technologies, and lab-on-a-chip applications.
Here are a few more different examples:
3D printing has expanded rapidly with one of its most notable areas of application being the health and medical industry. Research firm Markets and Markets are projecting that the use of 3D printing applications within healthcare will have a value of $2.1 billion by next year. Innovations include printing everything from medications to human organs, but perhaps the most commercially successful so far has been prosthetics. Stryker Orthopaedics, a Kalamazoo-based company, is potentially important to the hundreds of thousands of Americans seeking a knee or hip replacement. With annual revenues of $10 billion it is responsible for building titanium components for joint implants designed to precisely fit the bone structure and musculature of any individual. And many of these orthopedic implants are custom-manufactured by Stryker using 3D printers. The company is now planning specially programmed 3D printers that will create its custom implants right on the premises while the surgeons and patients wait, saving time and money.
It has been reported that Lockheed Martin is applying 3D printing to aviation, having produced a new composite material that can be used to produce ultra-light, ultra-strong bodies for its F-35 fighter jets. While the F-35 is over 50 feet long and weights over 12 tons, Lockheed builds the jet’s body and interior panels via an array of printers mounted and moving up and down, and sideways on scaffolds of metal tubes. According to Lawrence Gasman, president of Charlottesville, VA-based industry analyst SmartTech Publishing, “there are no big aerospace companies that do not use 3D printing for major parts in their aircrafts.”
U.K.-based startup Orbex recently produced what they believe is the world’s largest 3D printed rocket engine, standing at 56 feet (17 meters) tall; roughly one-fourth the size of SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The engine is manufactured in a single piece without joints, creating a rocket that is up to 30% lighter and 20% more efficient and better able to withstand extreme temperature and pressure fluctuations. Orbex is working with engineers from NASA and the ESA, and also partnered with Swiss satellite startup Astrocast to launch 64 nano-satellites to build a global Internet of Things network.
One company that made headlines at the 2014 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago was Local Motors, when in front of a live audience they produced the world’s first 3D-printed car – the Strati. I should note that about 75% of the Strati’s components were 3D printed. Items such as the rubber tires, brakes, battery and electric engine were manufactured using conventional methods. The Strati took about 44 hours to fully print and consisted of 50 individual parts – compared to some 30,000 in a traditionally built car. Depending on the features one might select your new 3D printed vehicle retails for between $18 and 30K.
Recently, Austin-based ICON unveiled its new “Vulcan II” 3D printer that can print up to a 2,000 square foot house quickly at half the cost. ICON has created proprietary concrete/mortar material which it calls “Lavacrete” that has passed every structural test; is safe for people and resilient to the varieties of conditions it may encounter. The company aims to make homes at a cost of up to $125 a square foot. Their 3D printing has the ability to cut costs of homebuilding by 30-50 percent compared to traditional construction methods. Time Magazine named ICON one of the best inventions of 2018, while Popular Science named ICON one of the 100 Greatest Innovations of 2018. Meanwhile, the tools and processes are progressing rapidly. Dubai is aiming for a quarter of its new buildings to be based on 3D-printing technology by 2030.
Personalized footwear is an excellent test case for the production capabilities of 3D printing. A good shoe must be tough and durable, yet flexible and lightweight, and meet your expectations for support and comfort. Imagine shoes custom-fitted to each of your feet, with the style tailored exactly to your taste. Adidas is showcasing a glimpse of the future of personalized footwear at its pop-up Speedfactory Lab Experience in Brooklyn, NY. The Speedfactory has a souped-up treadmill with data acquisition equipment to provide real-time analysis of a customer’s running strides. At the store, Adidas employees acquire information about how you run that would generally be used to help select your optimal running shoe style. Adidas can then use this data to design the perfect running shoe for you.
Consider the new 4G smartphones. In order to transmit signals at the higher frequency bands manufacturers will likely require a shift from aluminum bodies to stainless steel. Because it’s stronger than aluminum, less is needed. And that means less interference and more room for the battery. But here’s the challenge. Switching the material from aluminum to steel takes 10 times as long to machine, because the steel is so much stronger than aluminum, it’s hard to cut. Enter Desktop Metal with a 3D metal-printing system that could be competitive with traditional manufacturing in this situation. The Burlington-based company uses a jet of metal powder and an oven to fuse the printed metal. The system boasts what the company is billing as the fastest metal 3D printer in the world, at 12,000 cubic centimeters of printed output per hour—100 times as fast as older, laser-based 3D metal-printing techniques.
And finally, there is Jabil Inc. Jabil is a Florida-based company with over 100 production facilities in 28 different countries. Jabil, now the third largest contract manufacturer prints thousands of machined parts for companies in industries from consumer electronics to aerospace; pharmaceuticals to home appliances.
3D printing has seen impressive adoption rates across the manufacturing industry, but suffered slow printing speeds. However, earlier this year, researchers at the University of Michigan developed a new 3D printing method that can produce complex shapes at up to 100 times the speed of traditional 3D printers. And using synthetic liquid resin and CT-like scanning technologies, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley have developed a 3D printer that can produce replicas of nearly any scanned object in record time. Both innovations, capable of printing with a number of new resins, prove the technology has tremendous potential to commercialize high-speed and high-resolution additive manufacturing.
Additive Manufacturing is poised to revolutionize the global economy in ways that most experts are failing to grasp. What makes AM so revolutionary is that:
it builds a product in a precise shape as dictated by a sophisticated software program;
is easy to make the item fully customized to the needs of any particular user;
dramatically reduces material waste, energy consumption, and market inefficiencies;
it can mass-produce goods with quality and speed; and
any future 3D manufacturing “factory” no longer needs to be a giant plant built over some protracted period of time, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, but rather a small warehouse containing a few printing systems quick to set up, and easy to disassemble and move if and when needed.
An innovation once considered a gimmick is proving itself to be a formidable giant. One of the leading experts in AM is Avi Reichental, former CEO of 3D Systems, the largest publicly traded 3D printing company in the world and part of the core faculty at Singularity University, where I am a member of their online global network. Within the next five years Avi predicts that:
50% of all manufacturing companies will have 3D printing operations in production;
40% of all medical surgeons will practice with 3D models; and
50% of all consumer businesses with have revenue-bearing 3D printing operations.
AM represents the complete digital transformation of the manufacturing process (you may want to access an earlier article I wrote on Digital Transformation) giving traditional manufacturers vastly greater flexibility, speed, efficiency and responsiveness – and AM developments can be found all across America. For example, General Electric’s former CEO Jeff Immelt was determined for the company to be a major player. Today, in Westchester Ohio, GE has 130k square-foot facility with 70 industrial additive printers producing a steady white-noise hum; while in Pittsburgh, 50 engineers clad in a strange mix of steel-toed boots and protective suits work intently producing state-of-the-art components. It seems rather ironic that a company like GE is building their billion dollar business in old steel towns like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh – the very cities AM is most poised to disrupt.
From helping companies open additive manufacturing facilities, protect their intellectual property, forge partnerships with AM companies, invest in start-ups that own promising new technologies, defend potential product liability issues, understand and comply with
government regulations (e.g. FAA and FDA), to hiring and retaining talent with a deep understanding of these new methodologies, there are lots of opportunities for those attorneys who choose to focus on this micro-niche.
For those looking for even more information, you might check out the Association of 3D Printing (http://associationof3dprinting.com/about-us) a “conglomeration of executives who saw the need for the industry to have its own voice” where, as of the last time I checked, there were a grand total of NO lawyers listed amongst their over 150 member firms.
About the Author
Patrick J. McKenna is an internationally recognized author, lecturer, strategist and seasoned advisor to the leaders of premier law firms; having had the honor of working with at least one of the largest firms in over a dozen different countries.
He is the author/co-author of ten books most notably his international business best seller, First Among Equals, currently in its sixth printing and translated into nine languages. His most recent work, The Art of Leadership Succession (Legal Business World Publications, 2019), provides in-depth guidance on the leadership selection process in professional firms.
Patrick’s three decades of experience led to his being the subject of a Harvard Law School Case Study entitled: Innovations In Legal Consulting (2011). One example of that innovation was his launching the first instructional program designed to specifically address the issues that new firm leaders of larger firms face in their First 100 Days – which has thus far graduated over 80 new leaders many from AmLaw 100 and 200-sized law firms, as well as from notable accounting and consulting firms.
Patrick is the recipient of an “Honorary Fellowship” from Leaders Excellence of Harvard Square; and was voted by the readers of Legal Business World as one of only seven international Thought Leaders (2017).