How to Protect Intellectual Property

by | Apr 2, 2020 | Blog, High-Speed Machining, Rapid Prototyping

15 min read

Lately, our blog has featured a great deal of information, with posts featuring tips, how-to’s, and the overall benefits of setting up in-house prototyping.

Of all the benefits we’ve explained, there is a major advantage that is worth emphasizing for its larger reach beyond your in-house prototyping lab. Protecting your intellectual property is a critical challenge facing most major manufacturers, though perhaps none more than consumer electronics.

Regardless of what you manufacture, protecting your intellectual property should be a top priority. Unfortunately, following through can be overwhelming especially if you’re unsure which safeguards are necessary. However, failure to implement them can result in costly breaches and compromised confidential information.

There’s no need to worry, though. Let’s take a look at how you can establish measures that protect your intellectual property, control your process, and keep your valuable information protected from start to finish.

Why What You Protect Matters

For the sake of keeping everyone on the same page, consider the following definition:

“Intellectual property is a broad categorical description for the set of intangibles owned and legally protected by a company from outside use or implementation without consent. Intellectual property can consist of patents, trade secrets, copyrights, franchises, and trademarks or simply ideas.”

Author Nick Harkaway explains how these intangibles and their protection are inextricably connected to our larger notions of privacy:

“Intellectual property, more than ever, is a line drawn around information, which asserts that despite having been set loose in the world – and having, inevitably, been created out of an individual’s relationship with the world – that information retains some connection with its author that allows that person some control over how it is replicated and used. In other words, the claim that lies beneath the notion of intellectual property is similar or identical to the one that underpins notions of privacy.”

Companies increasingly face threats against intellectual property intangibles and their privacy, especially online. The inability to effectively thwart these threats presents far-reaching economic consequences:

With a global economy conducted increasingly online, intellectual property theft is a growing problem for businesses and policy makers. The problem can be difficult to define and quantify, hard to track, and complicated to enforce. It’s also costly: William Evanina, national counterintelligence executive of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, estimated in 2015 that intellectual property theft costs the U.S. economy $400 billion annually.

For more up-to-date evidence concerning the critical nature of intellectual property, look no further: “The United States Trade Representative, which led the seven-month investigation into China’s intellectual property theft and made recommendations to the Trump administration, found that ‘Chinese theft of American IP currently costs between $225 billion and $600 billion annually.’”

Starting with the hit to your business and brand, intellectual property theft can pose a real threat to the American economy as well. Fortunately, there are things you can start doing right away to mitigate the risk of intellectual property loss.

Steps to Shield Your Intellectual Property

By bringing prototyping in-house, you’re already making a significant stride in protecting your intellectual property. However, a few basic steps should be implemented early on to ensure that smart practices are established from the start.

For instance, if you are designing on a computer that is connected to the internet (yes, we know. What computer isn’t? We’ll get into this later…), make sure that your computer features the most up-to-date security software, including a proper firewall and various internet security tools.

As you likely know, the majority of modern-day intellectual property theft takes place online. If you can’t protect your internet connection, your intellectual property is at greater risk of being compromised.

According to Steve Weber, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information and the faculty director of the Center for Long Term Cybersecurity, the danger with the internet lies in its original communicative purpose, followed by the fact that “we’ve bootstrapped a lot of our economy to it… The underlying technical infrastructure is not designed for what we’re using it for. That doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong; it just means that it wasn’t set up to make security easy.”

So, the responsibility to strengthen security however possible in order to protect intellectual property falls to individuals and individual businesses.

Another effective and easy practice to put in place is to prohibit or systematically scan thumb drives being used on CNC machines or any other in-house prototyping equipment. A single thumb drive that has been infected with a virus or malware could quickly jeopardize whatever computer or machine you’re using. With the potential to damage or hold your data for ransom, or worse, secretly gather information and report it back to another party, it’s important to take cautionary measures to protect yourself.

The following are some more advanced ways you can take your in-house prototyping protections even further.

Consider the Source

As we’ve covered in an earlier post, some major brands will go so far as to outsource the manufacturing of a single item across multiple parties, by distributing designs for unnamed parts to different manufacturers.

This way, no one knows what piece of the puzzle they are working on… or even what the puzzle looks like. Rather than send out a complete design for a single product or part, the design is broken up and distributed to multiple manufacturers, keeping the final product unknown and, therefore, under wraps.

The roots of this approach to protecting intellectual property began with the U.S. government’s determination to keep their agenda confidential during the Cold War. By strategically sending out requisite components to various manufacturers, no individual person could ever determine whether the part they were making was integral to a rocket, missile, or satellite. This same strategy could even be used with decoy parts to throw thieves off track.

An extreme example? Sure, but the sourcing strategy is worth considering when you can’t create a prototype in-house and want to protect your creation from prying eyes.

Sign on the Line

A simple way to show that you’re serious about protecting your intellectual property is to require visitors coming to your lab to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Obviously, you will have visitors from time to time, whether it’s a client or a technician to service your machines.

By requiring NDA compliance, you signal that you are invested in protecting your intellectual property and you also set the legal tone against any possible issues this visitor could present in the future.

Granted, sometimes you might have an NDA on file for a particular company, but not for a specific customer associated with their operation. In other words, the company you’re working with has signed an NDA, but one of their customers or vendors, who is also collaborating on the project, has not. If that customer reaches out needing assistance, you may need to get creative in order to avoid putting your intellectual property at risk.

A common example of this in our industry is when a customer needs help from their CAM software provider. Often, the quickest way to a solution is to share the solid model with them to learn how to correctly apply a tool path. To keep the part identity discrete, simply alter the design just enough so that it’s uniquely different from the real product, thus sharing no critical features. This allows business to move forward, providing assistance when needed without having to physically interact with the actual product in the lab, or slow down the process with another NDA.

Curtain Call

This one makes us think of the Wizard of Oz and the famous plea: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

All it takes to make this happen is a simple black curtain installation. By physically equipping each of your CNC machines and 3D printers with small black curtains, you give operators the chance to cover the window, masking out what is being made when someone unfamiliar is visiting. Going this route allows you to bring visitors into your lab and keep operations running, all the while under wraps… quite literally.

Cloud Cover

The digital version of the curtain call is to rely on cloud storage and design software. It may sound counter-intuitive to upload your most sensitive information on the internet, but cloud security has never been stronger.

Cloud encryption has gotten so good that there are even services available that meet the notoriously demanding requirements of ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations). In order to kick these security measures up a notch, ensure that all of your designs are also backed up on a local computer.

Better yet — keep your design on a PC that has no internet connectivity. It’s hard to imagine that such computers exist these days, but this step is certainly worth exploring for that added, critical layer of confidentiality and IP protection.

Keep in mind when it comes to online IP theft, “Anything that can be digitized—reduced to a series of zeroes and ones—can be transmitted rapidly from one computer to another. There is no reduction of quality in second, third, or fourth generation copies.”

Ultimately, implementing as many of these measures as feasibly possible is a smart way to ensure that your lab has layers of protection against intellectual property theft.

We invite you to contact us with any questions you might have concerning intellectual property protection at your in-house prototyping lab. Protecting your intellectual property is part of our commitment to elevate the manufacturing industry and overcome challenges as it continues to evolve.


High-Speed CNC machining is more than 60,000 RPM spindle-speed. When you’re making small or complex parts, you need speed and precision at every stage. DATRON AG engineers didn’t just invent a faster, more precise CNC machine. They re-interpreted and optimized your entire machining workflow from start to finish.

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