On 16 July 2011 I wrote about Eddie Kirby's presentation on FabLab Manchester at the Daresbury breakfast meeting. A FabLab or fabrication laboratory is a workshop equipped with computer controlled machinery that enables users to make more or less anything. The Manchester FabLab is the first in the UK but there are already several other FabLabs across the world from the North of Norway to South Africa.
I visited the Manchester FabLab on 4 Aug 2011 and saw its facilities for myself.
Located on the ground floor of a brightly painted but rather forbidding Soviet style block of flats known as the CHIPS building at New Islington just to the east of the city centre, it is not easy to find and does not look much from the outside .......
..... but inside it is one of the most fascinating places in Manchester. I was shown a single room housing a 3D printer, laser cutter, vinyl cutter and much more. I was also shown some of the artefacts that had been made with this kit such as a set of casters made as a single unit and a crackit bat
- a combination of tennis racket and cricket bat - that appears to have been invented by Matt King who plays rugby league for Warrington.
The first FabLab was established by the charismatic Prof Neil Gershenfeld of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a talk to TED filmed in 2006 Prof Gerschenfeld explained how the idea sprang from a course at MIT entitled "How to make (almost) Anything". The equipment used on the course was funded by the US National Science Foundation. As he explains in his talk, when one receives NSF money there is an outreach requirement which he sattisfied opening the FabLab to the public. In that spirit the Manchester FabLab makes its facilities available to businesses, schools, clubs and other organizations and members of the public at large.
It goes without saying that the Manchester and other FabLabs around the world serve all manner of useful social purposes from inspiring 8 year old schoolgirls to assisting individual inventors but for me the most interesting aspect of FabLab is its exemplification of what can be done with additive manufacturing technologies. I am very excited about these technologies because I believe that they could save manufacturing and hence our jobs and living standards in the West. When I canvassed that idea in "Is that really all we can expect over the next 10 years" on 2 Aug 2011 it was pooh-poohed immediately by Steve Roberts of Fripp Design and Research in Sheffield:
"As you well know the day of 'home manufacture' is a long way away. It is not a technology issue, it is economic:
1. Some of the materials used to make components is hazardous
2. Litigation; you download a 3D CAD file of a key brake component for your car, you make the part on a 3D Printer, you install it in your car, you lend your car to a friend and the friend gets killed because the component failed...in this complex supply chain scenario...who is liable for the failure, who goes to prison and who is seriously out of pocket financially
There is a lot of activity about 'home manufacture' on the 3d print forums...all being pushed by the 3D print manufacturers, of course!
We own 3D printers and understand the limitation of the technology; because our design teams are all educated to Masters level in Rapid Prototyping. These stories make good press but bad business."
Well, we all know the jokes about Yorkshiremen and I actually live in Yorkshire. As a Lancastrian exile in their county I can disclose that they have an onomatopoeic adjective "maungy" which fits that attitude. Those stories come not from me nor even from the manufacturers but from respected academics like Neil Hopkinson of the Additive Manufacturing Research Group at Loughborough University and the aircraft manufacturer EADS which has made a bike using this technology. As I write this on the day that Standard & Poor downgraded US government debt after the stock markets of the world entered a tailspin on fears that the Eurozone is in danger of falling apart additive manufacturing is just about the only sign of hope about.
As an intellectual property lawyer I am interested in how designs for products made with additive technologies are to be protected at law. The point occurred to me while reflecting on the recent "Star War's Helmet Case" in the Supreme Court which I discussed in my blog for IP lawyers and patent and trade mark agents on 31 July 2011. Not s lot of people are thinking about this topic though I did find this very useful article by Simon Bradshaw and others on "The Intellectual Property Implications of Low Cost 3D Printing". I discussed some of those issues with the manager Haydn Insley while I was there.
One of the things Haydn and I agreed to do is to present an evening seminar on the legal issues for FabLab users in the early Autumn. This will be full of practical tips and absolutely free. It will include
- an introduction to design, patents and confidentiality including design registration and unregistered designs,
- PatLib libraries, clinics and other reliable sources of information,
- the Intellectual Property Office, European Patent Office, OHIM (EU trade marks and designs registry) and WIPO (the UN specialist agency for intellectual property),
- intellectual property professionals such as patent counsel, patent and trade mark agents and specialist solicitors;
- enforcement in the Patents and Patents County Courts, Chancery Division mediation and other forms of ADR;
- access to investment and loans through angels, venture capital, banks and CDFI; and
Just before I left Haydn asked for the URLs of my websites and blogs so here goes:
- our chambers website at http://www.nipclaw.com contains information about me and other members of NIPC, what we do, how to instruct us and how we charge etc.;
- my IP/IT update blog at http://nipclaw.blogspot.com/ is really aimed at intellectual property lawyers but does contain some articles that the general public find interesting;
- our Inventors Club website at http://www.nipc-inventors.co.uk/ is chock full of information about advisers, clinics, clubs, funding and so on and it is updated regularly by our Inventors Club blog at http://nipcinvention.blogspot.com/; and
- there is the IP North West site at http://ipnorthwest.co.uk/ and http://ipnorthwest.blogspot.com/ and you can also follow us on Linkedin, Facebook and twitter.