The fate of branding as we know it in a 3D-printing world

Discussion on the IP aspects of 3D printing continues apace, primarily on whether 3D printing
may challenge, or even put paid, to our current legal framework for IP protection. But lest we forget, IP rights are of interest primarily to the extent that they both create value for their owners and enable the public to benefit from creativity and invention. As far as trademarks are concerned, a valuable trademark means that the trademark owner has succeeded in building up brand equity and thereby nurturing a successful brand. The question that then arises is whether there is a future for branding, as we know it, in a 3D printing world?

Let us refer to a brand as the sum of the information about a product, or even company, which is conveyed to the consumer by the trademark, on the one hand, and the behavior of the consumer with respect to the brand and what it embodies, on the other. This interrelationship between the brand and the consumer is fashioned by advertising and promotion, and it is implemented by manufacture of a product (services are not relevant here), which is then distributed to the consumer. The ultimate objective goal of branding is to sell something to the consumer, while the ultimate subjective goal is for the consumer to have a positive experience with the brand. A successful brand may be a luxury item, such as a perfume, or a daily consumer item, such as a pill for a headache. Whatever the particular product that is connected with a given brand, a successful brand does not just happen, but it is the result of a conscious effort by the brand holder to develop its brand.

We recall that the basic framework for 3D printing consists of a person who downloads a CAD file or the like, which digital file then instructs the 3D printing device to produce the desired product, using the proper materials. If there is a brand that is identified with the product, then the brand will appear on the product. The consumer may carry out the production process either within the confines of his home or business (think of a dental implant or airplane wing) or at a fulfillment center. In either situation, the ultimate manufacturer is the consumer (or the fulfillment center acting on the consumer’s instructions). The result is that 3D printing largely renders redundant the traditional product distribution function-—from manufacturer to distributor/importer to retailer to customer.

Under such circumstances, how can the trademark owner, who at best is merely the source of an authorized digital production file for the product, engage with the consumer in a manner that will enable the trademark owner to create brand equity by facilitating a positive consumer experience with the ultimate product? Taken from the consumer’s perspective, it is assumed that it is in the consumer’s interest that brands will continue to convey to the consumer valuable information about the product and that consumers will have a compelling interest that branded products manufactured via 3D technology be “authentic”. It is also assumed that some arrangement will be found for pricing the digital production file in a way that will compensate the erstwhile product manufacturer for no longer being able to sell its physical product in accordance with the traditional industrial manufacturing model.

Based on the foregoing, and in the spirit of Arthur C. Clarke, let us imagine a time when all products are purchased/made by the consumer via 3D printing. In deciding which product a consumer wishes to purchase, the consumer will be able to first experience the desired product by means of virtual reality functionality, with the product bearing the trademark of its owner. Once the consumer selects the desired product, he can then download an authorized digital production file. The trademark owner will seek to inform the consumer’s purchasing decision through various forms of advertising, while technological means will be applied to flag a digital production file that is not authentic. When taken together, brand owners may still be able to create viable brands and receive adequate compensation for their branded products.

Or perhaps branding will play various roles, depending upon the type of product involved and the means of their manufacture. For products where functionality is paramount, 3D printing will provide an attractive option for the consumer, who will simply want a product that works. Here, if any brand will matter, it will be the brand of the platform that makes the digital production file available to the public. On the other hand, branded products for which the consumer experience will still rely upon the existing manufacturing and distribution model.

Or perhaps 3D printing will affect brands and branding in other ways currently not contemplated. What does seem certain is that the branding industry will need to confront the challenges posed by 3D printing.
The fate of branding as we know it in a 3D-printing world The fate of branding as we know it in a 3D-printing world Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Saturday, December 19, 2015 Rating: 5


  1. The statement: " If there is a brand that is identified with the product, then the brand will appear on the product" is a logical error and should not be accepted at face value.

    This sounds in what is likened to a "naked transfer" of a trademark, as inherent in the trademark is an assurance of source. With 3-d printing, that source aspect just is not there, and the presence of the trademark (through the CAD file) acts more like a US design patent than it does an actual notification of source.

    This is both more than and different than the thought expressed about the actual channel flow of goods.

    With home "manufacture," of which 3-d printing is really just an enablement of, the "brand" moves from the traditional to a different - and perhaps unprotectable item: the idea of the product. Even the notion of experiencing a virtual simulation is in fact NOT locked to the person who had the "idea" of the product, and one should question why such an assumption need carry over from the traditional mores of trademark.

    That said, a fascinating topic, and one that has parallels already in place for the more common place "digital goods" of music and entertainment.

  2. Neil,

    It doesn't work like this. 3d printing is like 2d digital printing, except one can build up three dimensional structures. As a technique for rapid formation of wax objects for subsequent investment casting it is great. As a technique for manufacturing finished goods, it is less desirable. Clothing, for example, is more than a shape and colour. One requires fibers having tensile strength. I can imagine 3d printing enabling unique chocolate shapes, but it is difficult to imagine other foods being printed. It is unlikely that printed components will have desired strength and integrity.

    For shape fillers like shoulder pads, breast implants and the like, the technology will come of age. For most goods, it is a pipe-dream.

  3. "It is unlikely that printed components will have desired strength and integrity."

    Perfectly possible to create a strong metal part with 3d printing.

  4. And since when has the frame of a bike been state of the art manufacturing?

    I've seen drop wise manufacturing with titanium. Sure it's possible. The technology is not going to end up in people's offices though

  5. Michael,

    You are missing the point and sound very much like the early computer manufacturers who (blindly) stated that no one would be interested with a computer in their own home.

    Sorry, but your view tends to diminish what you say.


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