Additive manufacturing – also known as 3D printing – is a modern method of manufacturing. Traditional manufacturing methods include injection modeling, machining, forming, and joining.
3D printing varies from traditional methods by using a computer file and 3D printer to print an object in layers from the base up.
3D printing has advantages over traditional methods because it:
- Is highly customizable
- Requires less assembly
- Increases design freedom
- Is cost effective for low volume production
3D printing is an excellent way to prototype your product before deciding to proceed with a patent. Scott Tarcy at CADDesignhelp.com works with inventors to create CAD designs, 3D printed prototypes, and illustrate patent drawings.
“I tell inventors all the time that it will take multiple revisions of CAD and prototypes before it will be final,” Tarcy said. “Sometimes, after the first round of CAD and prototyping it becomes apparent that the idea will not work, in which case it is best to pivot. Getting a patent on a product that is not possible to produce doesn’t make a lot of sense. “
3D printing a product begins with creating a file in the suitable format (.amf) and using computer aided design (CAD) software. It is advisable to use the services of a CAD designer who has experience with 3D printing to create this file. These CAD designs can also be used as the basis for your patent drawings.
The CAD file is then sent to a 3D printing shop that manufactures your product. The 3D print shop you use will determine the cost, and what materials you can print with. 3D printing is a great way to create a prototype of your invention.
Patent law allows the United States Patent Office (USPTO) to only grant patents for inventions that are “new” and are not publicly available. Discussing an invention with a CAD designer and sending the file to a 3D print shop could be considered a public disclosure of the invention. This public disclosure could technically be used to prevent an inventor from receiving a patent.
It is highly advisable to meet with a patent attorney first and discuss 3D printing a prototype. The attorney likely will advise entering into non-disclosure agreements with the CAD designer and 3D print shop before disclosing an invention to them.
Can You Patent a 3D Printed Product?
Yes, you can patent a 3D printed product. Patent law in the US allows a person to get a utility patent for “processes, machines, manufactures and compositions of matter.” A 3D printed product is considered a “manufacture.”
The utility patent you receive for a product covers all claimed embodiments of that product no matter how it is produced. The patent will protect your product the same if it is made by hand, manufactured using a mold, or 3D printed.
You may also file a design patent covering the aesthetic appearance of your product. This design patent would protect the appearance of your product regardless of whether it was manufactured conventionally or by 3D printing methods.
Can You Patent a 3D Printable File?
You may file a design patent that protects the aesthetic appearance of your design. This protection extends to the design located in the 3D printable file.
Computer files are extremely easy to duplicate and share. If a 3D printable file of a product protected by a utility patent was easily available online, virtually anyone could 3D print the product.
3D printing a product covered by a utility patent would be considered infringement of the utility patent. However, this would be very difficult to track and not worth suing each individual person for a one-time infringement.
Getting a design patent on your 3D printable file will help you enforce your patent rights online. You can use this design patent to prevent people from reproducing and distributing this file without your permission.
Patenting a 3D Printed Product
The process of patenting a 3D printed product may include filing a utility patent and a design patent. As with all patents, it is highly advisable to consult a patent attorney as soon as you think you have a patentable idea.
Step 1: Turn an Idea into an Invention
An applicant must first have an invention to patent. Identify the problem your idea solves. Determine how your solution can exist and work in the real world. Think through all possible ways of implementing your idea into the real world. Research how others have done this before and find a better solution.
Step 2: Contact a Patent Attorney
You should contact a patent attorney once you think you have a novel invention. A patent attorney can help advise you on many aspects of patenting such as.
- If your invention qualifies for a utility and design patent
- The next best course of action
- Conducting a patentability search
- Drafting non-disclosure agreements
- Drafting intellectual property assignment agreements
- Preparing a patent application
It is wise to contact a patent attorney early in the patenting process. A patent attorney can help tailor the patent application process to the specific needs of your invention.
A patent attorney can draft non-disclosure agreements so an inventor can freely discuss their invention with a CAD designer and 3D print shop. A patent attorney may also draft a contract that assigns all intellectual property rights related to the CAD files and 3D printed prototypes to the inventor.
Step 3: Commission a CAD design
Contact a CAD designer with 3D printing experience. The patent attorney you are working with may have a CAD designer they use for patent drawings. Discuss with your attorney the need to have non-disclosure agreements in place before disclosing your invention to others.
Step 4: 3D Print a Prototype
Use your CAD file to 3D print a prototype of your product. You may choose to use the same company to design the CAD file and 3D print it. Determine what material to print your prototype with.
Test the prototype. Does it work as expected? You might discover more uses for your product, which you can add to the utility patent. You may recognize that your product doesn’t work as well as expected and make changes to it. Maybe you even decide that your prototype is so lousy, it’s not even worth pursuing a patent for.
Step 5: Determine What Patents to Apply For
It is possible for an inventor to file an application for the following patents.
- Utility patent on the product
- Design patent for the product
- Design patent for the design within the file
Determining what patents to apply for is based on the product, and how the inventor plans to make money off the patent. This should be discussed with a patent attorney.
Because the inventor did not design the file, arguably they are not entitled to the design patent covering the file. Discuss assignment of intellectual property rights with your patent attorney before disclosing your invention to anyone.
Step 6: Prepare the Patent Application
It is highly advisable to use the services of a patent attorney to prepare and file a patent application. Although an inventor may file and obtain their own patent, there is no guarantee that the patent would sufficiently protect the invention.
Each patent application has several forms that must be filled out and submitted. The patent specification can be drafted from scratch or by using templates found online.
Step 7: Submit the Application
The typical method of filing a patent application is using the USPTOs Electronic Filing System (EFS-Web). Navigate to the EFS-Web portal and create a USPTO account. The required documents are uploaded to EFS-Web in PDF format and submitted. Patent fees are also paid through the EFS-Web portal.
Applications can also be filed by mail or delivered in person to the USPTOs main office in Alexandria, VA. Applications should be mailed to “Commissioner for Patents P.O. Box 1450 Alexandria, VA 22313-1450.” Applications filed by mail or in person are charged an additional fee.
Step 8: Wait for Approval
It takes some time for the USPTO to start examining an application due to the large number of applications it receives. The time it takes for the USPTO to begin examining a patent varies by the inventions technological field. The historical time to receive a first office action is 17.6 months.
Very few applications are approved on the first office action. The applicant fixes the issues the USPTO disagrees with in the first office action and resubmits for a second examination.
If the applicant correctly fixes all the issues, then a notice of allowance is issued. The typical amount of time for a patent application to make it to an allowance or final rejection is 23.4 months.
While the application is pending you may view the status using the USPTOs Patent Application Information Retrieval Tool (PAIR). Login using your USPTO account. PAIR shows where your application is in the process and any action items that you need to address. Correcting issues or uploading more documents is done in the EFS-Web portal.
Step 9: Petitions and Appeals
If your application is rejected a second time, you may appeal the decision. Appeals at the USPTO are heard by the Patent and Trademark Appeals Board (PTAB).
The judges will review the examiner’s decision, hear arguments from both the applicant and the USPTO, and make a final decision on whether the patent will be granted or not.
To appeal a final rejection, file a notice of appeal in the EFS-Web portal and pay the appropriate fees. Like a normal court of law, an individual can represent themselves in an appeal hearing, but using the services of a patent attorney is highly recommended.
Step 10: Enforcing Your Patent Rights
Just because you have a patent doesn’t mean that people won’t infringe your invention. It is the responsibility of the patent owner to enforce the rights granted by the patent.
If you think someone is infringing your patent, you should contact them in writing and explain why you think they are infringing your patent and ask them to stop. If they do not stop, you can initiate a lawsuit in a federal court for patent infringement.
You can attempt to stop them from infringing your patent by asking the court for an injunction. You may also sue for damages in lost profits. In court, your patent is a valid legal document that defines your invention and will be used to prove infringement.
Sheldon received his training of the patent system at the United States Patent & Trademark Office. He works with universities and consultants to provide analytics and guidance for technology commercialization from patents.
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- N.A. (2020, June 25) 2106 Patent Subject Matter Eligibility. Retrieved from https://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/pac/mpep/s2106.html
- N.A. (2021, December 16) File Online. Retrieved from https://www.uspto.gov/patents/apply
- N.A. (2022, February 22) Patents Pendency Data March 2022. Retrieved from https://www.uspto.gov/dashboard/patents/pendency.html