Digital Transformation: 3D printing by the consumer

What if, instead of having to stock countless units of aging spare parts, manufacturers could simply e-mail their customers a file that allowed those parts to be 3D printed at home (or at a 3D service provider)?

Dealing with Disruption

Now consider, what if a third-party company stepped in and disrupted your spare part business: MaaS – Manufacturing as a (third-party) Service? We already see similar services starting, such as with refilling proprietary inkjet printer reservoirs, or supplying generic coffee machine capsules, so why not be proactive in this arena?

The Law, and knowing how it might not protect you!

You may think that the capsules and print heads and even Lego bricks may be protected by law from being copied, but courts from Germany through to Canada have consistently found in favour of the “imposter”.

Technology solutions

Sony has used technology to make sure only authorised accessories can be connected to its PS4 consoles, thus pushing up the price (through licencing fees) and creating an almost monopoly. HP do the same with their print heads, but refilling the head seems to get around this, and even HP-compatible heads are available on the market.

How to be a part of a viable MaaS business?


You will need to restructure your business to make money from the license, rather than the product (or spare part) itself. You will need to use technology to protect your Intellectual Property (IP): the detail of the design of the product is the critical value that needs to be protected.

Rolls-Royce no longer sells any of its jet engines: they are licensed to the airlines on a per-flight hour basis. The engines communicate their runtime parameters to Rolls-Royce headquarters in the UK in realtime over dedicated satellite links and Rolls-Royce can dispatch a team of engineers to replace or service an engine whenever an aircraft lands, as required. The airline no longer needs to stock spare engines or recruit the highly-experienced powerplant engineers it would need only sporadically: it is all outsourced back to Rolls-Royce. It is a win-win solution for both partners.

Of course, some spare parts might be purely cosmetic or not necessarily IP-protected (such as drawers or lids or low pressure/temperature piping), but certainly only if recommended as a user-replaceable part, and there would be nothing standing in the way of providing 3D files to end-users to print and replace at home.

3D printers

Promote your own 3D printers. They would already be licenced to print your parts, perhaps using a secure private-public encryption with your server. They may be too expensive for the end user, but accessible to service technicians or high street retailers. Rather than selling them, why not instead simply lease them, or at least license them on a per-part basis, as their use can be controlled by you and ownership is not disputable. The license may also cover the cost of the consumables for each part printed (see below).

If the printers were also IoT devices, the quality of any parts printed could also be controlled.

Cars now incorporate so many electronics and computers that special and dedicated maintenance tools are required. Independent garages are being forced to concentrate on a small number of marques, as the cost of these tools are prohibitive. Usually, each manufacturer will lease or license these tools to garages: this is normally on a per-car basis, i.e. the garage pays a fee each time the tool is attached to a car, or a particular microcontroller or sub-system on that car. In this way, the fee can be easily and transparently passed to the owner.

3D consumables

To preserve quality, only the materials you provide may be used in the printers. Using RFID or similar technology, the printers would make sure they are only using the correct material.

This is similar to the way Sony protects is license income from accessory manufacturers, and certainly more effective than HP’s resell methods. It is perhaps more important than simply the quality of the inkjet being projected on to a sheet of paper: what if the replacement part needed to withstand 100 °C liquid at 20 bar, such as found in a coffee machine?


By using your own printers, it is possible to infuse a spare part with an IoT/RFID module, thus tracking its life-cycle, either internally to the product or externally to your cloud services. This expands the reach of the digital twin out of the factory and into the home.

Legal Complexities

Allowing third-parties, albeit under license, to print spare parts, opens up some unexpected consequences with regard to the legal standpoint of the quality of those printed parts.

Quality Control

What if a part manufactured under license does not meet the quality stipulated by the owner of the IP (you)? Who is responsible for destroying or disabling parts? How are 3D-printed spare parts recognisable from genuine spare parts (which may have also been 3D-printed in the original factory)? Should all spare parts be uniquely identifiable with a serial number? Should such a serial number be machine readable: is this allowable under privacy law?

Product Liability

A part printed by a third-party under license is still branded as a product of the original IP holder. What if a licensed third-party printed and sold an imperfect high-pressure fitting and it fractured and scalded the user: would the IP holder be liable?

It is clear that in areas such as 3D printing, the technology is moving ahead faster than the legal and regulatory frameworks. Companies will need to consider these issues carefully before committing to this route.


Companies will need to take advantage of new technologies in the near and continuing future.  This raises real challenges of how businesses need to adapt and transform fundamentally, moving from a product- to a service-based company, from one that manufactures its own parts to one that simply designs them and licences manufacturing elsewhere. Those changes will require a clear understanding of the legal structures needed to support these very different business models.



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