Remarks by Director Michelle K. Lee at Microsoft Tech Lab

USPTO Director Michelle K. Lee

September 30, 2015, 10:30 a.m.

Microsoft Tech Lab, 901 K Street, Washington, D.C.

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Nicole, and good morning everyone! It’s a pleasure to be here, and to talk to you today about a subject of keen interest to me, as well as Commerce Secretary Pritzker and President Obama: 3D printing, or additive manufacturing as we call it at the USPTO, a rising industry directly correlated with the role of patents driving innovation.

I want to start by sharing a video we developed in collaboration with the National Science Foundation and NBC Learn—the educational arm of NBC News, which provides resources for students, teachers and lifelong learners. For those of you participating remotely who can’t see it, you can find this video online with the rest of our “Science of Innovation” series at Just do a keyword search for USPTO and SCIENCE OF INNOVATION. When the page pops up, select the 3D Printing option, and it will take you right to the video. It’s about 5 minutes long. So without further ado, let’s play the video.

Every year, thousands of students around the country are introduced to additive manufacturing with this “Science of Innovation” video. But increasingly, they’re seeing the products of additive manufacturing all around them: in retail stores, in classrooms, maybe even in their own homes.  Two weeks ago there was even a story in the Federal Times about how the General Services Administration, or GSA, has made it easier for government agencies to purchase 3D printers. That’s pretty exciting stuff! Let’s face it, not just kids but people of all ages are fascinated with 3D printing. It’s like something out of science fiction.

You heard the stories of some of the pioneers of 3D printing in our video, Let me tell you about another innovator and true pioneer in the field, who saw the appeal of inventing such a device thirty years ago. Charles Hull had an intense interest in manufacturing, and he was troubled by how long it could take to create a prototype of a new device or tool. His solution was stereolithography, the first commercial rapid prototyping technology now known as 3D printing. Last year I had the privilege of inducting Mr. Hull into the National Inventors Hall of Fame—a program created by the USPTO more than 40 years ago with a non-profit called Invent Now. We host the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum in our Alexandria headquarters, so I encourage you to visit and learn more about Mr. Hull. In fact we currently have one of his earliest 3D printers, the SLA-1, on display at the entrance to the museum.

We also work with Invent Now in running the annual Collegiate Inventors Competition, and during last fall’s competition we witnessed the next generation of 3D printing innovation. The winners of the undergraduate category were a handful of inventors who created a desktop 3D printer that, for the first time, blends the layers of additive material to make seamless color flows.

But of course the innovation occurring isn’t just in the technology of 3D printing. It’s in the output of those printers. The list is long, and it’s truly transforming manufacturing, from aircraft components to musical instruments. Someone even created a working replica of a vintage sports car made entirely of carbon fiber-reinforced and recyclable plastic. And then of course there are life-changing products being quickly and easily produced to the exact specifications needed, such as revolutionary prosthetics.

Some of you may have seen the viral video of Robert Downey, Jr., presenting a seven-year-old boy with a prosthetic arm that looked just like a piece of his armored suit in the Iron Man and Avengers movies. Except the arm wasn’t produced by a fictitious billionaire with a vast amount of resources at his disposal.  It was created by a college student, using a 3D printer. And there have been similar stories in the news of parents using 3D printers to make prosthetics for their children or their pets. So additive manufacturing is changing lives.  

It's also growing the economy. A couple of weeks ago, Secretary Pritzker spoke at the American Energy and Manufacturing Competitiveness Summit. During her remarks she highlighted Youngstown, Ohio, which has partnered with this administration to open America Makes–the country’s very first advanced manufacturing institute, focused on research and development in 3D printing. In just three years, the institute has grown from 65 founding members to 142, working together to make 3D printing easier, cheaper, and more reliable. America Makes is also creating new jobs, spurring growth in the local economy, and making Youngstown an attractive hub for new and existing businesses of all sizes. And there are six other institutes like it around the country—all part of the president’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. NNMI brings the private sector, universities, community colleges, NGOs, and the needed supply chains together to collaborate on technologies that have the potential to go from lab to market in the next five to seven years.

To give you an idea of that potential, the USPTO has received about 1,700 applications per year over the last five years in the field of additive material technologies; and in hundreds of different patent classification areas, due to the varying types of end products that can be manufactured with this technology. So additive manufacturing, fueled by the promise of intellectual property protection, is taking off, and as we’ve seen it’s having a positive impact on people’s lives and the economy.

But as my fellow participants here today know, additive manufacturing also provides some challenges to other owners of intellectual property. By permitting the accurate duplication of objects that may be protected by a patent, trademark, or copyright, and shifting the manufacture of goods from central locations to personal homes and offices, it becomes difficult to identify who is duplicating IP-protected products, and harder to stop them. And as the technology improves and prices fall, the entry barrier for potential infringers becomes lower. This threatens to reduce the market for existing objects protected by intellectual property, from action figures to apparel. I’m sure these risks and others will be discussed in detail by today’s panelists. I hope so. It’s an important conversation to have.

But let’s not forget: Time and again, history has shown there are risks and rewards with all new technologies. And consumers are best served when policymakers engage early with members of industry and the public at large on how to best mitigate the risks, while reaping the rewards. There are many forms that engagement can take. For the Patent and Trademark Office, it has been in the form of an Additive Manufacturing Partnership. Started in 2013, this partnership grew out of our Patent Examiner Technical Training Program, which we expanded in response to a White House administrative action seeking to build upon the strong reforms brought about by the America Invents Act.

Through the partnership, members of industry and academia have come to the USPTO to share their experiences and insights with 3D printing, and to provide our patent examiners technical training on the latest state of the art. For example, during last year’s meeting we had an expert educate our examiners on the emerging technology of continuous liquid printing, which produces smoother 3D-printed products, and works much faster than traditional 3D-printing methods. That kind of engagement with industry is invaluable for our examiners, and it helps our agency get deserving new products and technologies to the marketplace with stronger patent protections and without undue delays; ultimately creating new jobs for American workers and benefitting consumers and manufacturers alike.

At the end of the day, administration initiatives like the Additive Manufacturing Partnership and NNMI exist to support the American spirit of innovation to the fullest—unleashing new breakthroughs, new markets, and new economic opportunities for our fellow citizens. That’s the spirit of Manufacturing Day, a celebration of modern manufacturing meant to inspire the next generation of manufacturers, by educating them about the long-term potential of 21st-century manufacturing and the opportunities it offers. The achievement of that potential hinges very much on the continuing partnership and collaboration of the kinds of organizations represented here today: government agencies, businesses, academia, NGOs, and others.

I should add that the administration is excited about the United States being the official Partner Country for Hannover Messe for the first time since the event began in 1947. For those of you who may not know, Hannover Messe is the world’s leading trade fair for industrial technology.  Held every year in Hanover, Germany, it typically includes more than 200,000 attendees from about 70 countries,  including global investors, buyers, distributors, resellers, and government officials, all looking to sign new business deals. The 2016 fair will be an excellent opportunity to showcase U.S. leadership in additive manufacturing, and all the other factors that make the United States the best place in the world to invest. Export-promotion and investment-promotion teams from the U.S. Commercial Service and SelectUSA are working hand in hand with U.S. companies and economic development organizations to get the most benefit possible for U.S. exhibitors. This is a good news story of which we can all be proud, and another example of public-private collaboration at its best.

So thank you all for joining us today and for all that you do as part of America’s innovation economy. I hope you enjoy today’s event, and I look forward to working with you in the days, weeks, and months ahead to support this American manufacturing renaissance to the fullest.

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