By: Paige Mankin
3D Printing and Cannabis
This article explores the cross-section of two rapidly growing industries: 3D printing and cannabis. The prospect of widespread cannabis legalization alongside the recent growth in 3D printing innovation presents potentially fruitful opportunities on both ends. That is, this is an opportunity for 3D printing startups to break into a new vertical (i.e., the cannabis industry), and also an opportunity for cannabis startups to partner up in a cross-section of technology where they could enter at the ground floor.
3D printing technology has revolutionized the way in which a wide array of physical objects is produced. Since 3D printing was first conceptualized about 30 years ago, analysts have been ruminating on its inevitable ability to disrupt certain industries. So far, 3D printing technology has been used to create a range of products from prosthetics and organs using a patient’s own cells, to airplane parts and clothing. So, what about 3D printing cannabis?
How Do 3D Printers Work?
In order to understand the intersection of 3D printing and cannabis, it is instructive to first present a brief description of how 3D printing technology generally works:
If you take a microscope to a normal printed page of text, you will observe that the printed letters do not merely stain the sheet of paper, but actually rest slightly atop the page’s surface. So, theoretically, if you print over that exact sheet thousands of times, ultimately the ink will accumulate to create a 3D model of each letter. 3D printers operate using this method of amassing layers to construct a physical object. 1.
Overall, a 3D printer works similarly to a regular inkjet printer. Both machines require a computerized file (e.g., a Word document, an Excel spreadsheet, an image, etc.) to be uploaded to the printer via a computer. However, there are three notable distinctions. First, 3D printers require the user to upload a digital file (commonly referred to as 3D models, CAD files, etc.) to the printer. Second, 3D printers use filaments instead of ink. Filaments can include a range of materials, from thermoplastics to wood, metals, paper and glass. Third, 3D printing requires many print cycles (or layers) to create the physical object. 3D printing technology works by adding layers upon layers of various filaments to ultimately build a physical object. These additional cycles are why 3D printing is often referred to as additive manufacturing. 1.
3D Printing and IP Law: How Expiring Patents are Propelling the 3D Printing Industry
The recent growth of 3D printing innovation is somewhat attributable to the expiration of crucial patents on industrial printing processes. In other words, many of the patents granted to pioneers of the 3D printing industry are now nearing their expiration dates. With the expiration of these patents comes the release of their monopoly over printing processes that had been held by the patent owners. 2.
For example, the expiration of various Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) patents (e.g., U.S. Patent No. 5,121,329 to Stratasys’ Scott Crump) propelled an explosion of growth in the 3D printing industry. 3. FDM is an additive manufacturing process using thermoplastic extrusion to build physical objects layer by layer. 4. Prior to these FDM patents expiring, FDM printers cost thousands of dollars. Their expiration caused the prices for FDM printers to diminish from over $10,000 to under $1,000. Relatedly, a new generation of 3D printing manufacturers (e.g., MakerBot and Ultimaker) mobilized, leading the way toward more accessible 3D printing. 2.
3D Printing and Cannabis
The same 3D printing technological process described above can be applied in the cannabis industry. Companies like Manna Molecular Science (http://www.mannamolecular.com/) and Potent Rope (http://www.potentrope.com/) exemplify the merger of 3D printing innovation and the cannabis industry. Manna Molecular Science, in partner with others, has created the MannaBot One (MB1), a 3D printer that produces transdermal patches. Relatedly, Potent Rope, is a startup that has created an edible 3D printing cannabis-based filament.
As we have written on before, intellectual property law is very important in the cannabis industry (see article).
The MannaBot One (MB1)
MB1 was built by Manna Robotics, in collaboration with Manna Molecular Science (a cannabis technology company), Dr. Michael Frid and two MIT engineers. Manna Molecular Science was founded in 2013 in response to an increased need for lab-tested, medically sound cannabis medicine delivery systems. 5.
The MB1 is one of the first 3D printers whose function is dedicated to the production of cannabis extracts. It prints transdermal patches, which are adhesive patches designed to deposit cannabis extract onto a user’s skin, which will eventually be absorbed directly into the user’s bloodstream. MB1, pictured below, is comprised of three main apparatuses: an extruder head, a 3D printer body, and a controller box. 6.
The MB1 does not substantially depart from the aforementioned general principles of 3D printing. First, the user designs a transdermal patch using specialized software. Then, the user uploads the design to the printer. Next, the MB1 prints the transdermal patches layer by layer. Just like all 3D printers, the MB1 works by printing one layer at a time. Finally, these layers solidify to form one solid unit. 6.
Manna Molecular advertises four main benefits of the MB1: 1) on demand batch production; 2) flexible cannabinoid profile; 3) consistent reproducibility; and 4) users can alter dose potency. 7.
The MB1 is just one example of innovation in the cannabis industry. 3D printing is empowering cannabis users with more freedom and independence, and waves of cannabis legalization across the country are paving the way for more innovative and exciting cannabis technology to come. Contributing to the trend of empowering cannabis users with more independence is Potent Rope, a company that allows cannabis users to create their own hybrid strains from the comfort of their homes.
Potent Rope, a patent pending technology, is an edible cannabis filament, which can be made for any standard 3D printer and customized with combinations of a variety of cannabinoids/terpenes. 8. Potent Rope is made using a mixture of FDA-approved water-soluble thermoplastic, pharmaceutical-grade excipients (an inactive substance that serves as the vehicle for a drug or other active substance) and active cannabis extract. 9. These ingredients are then extruded into a filament. For some, this might beg the question: is thermoplastic safe to eat? The average person consumes about 44 pounds of thermoplastic a year, in products like teeth-whitening strips, beer, and wine. 10. Currently, there is not a lot of data on the long-term safety of consuming thermoplastics, making it an area rich for exploration.
The creators of Potent Rope imagine a world where you can print your medicine from home. The use of 3D printing technology allows users to experiment with different mixtures of ingredients. 11. According to Potent Rope’s creators, sisters Ashley Herr and Paige Colen, Potent Rope empowers users with greater choice over what they are ingesting by enabling them to create their own hybrid strains, choosing from Sativa, Indica, CBD, or THC oils. 9.
Potent Rope is another example of innovators using 3D printing technologies to get involved with cannabis-related ventures in this era of increasing legalization. Herr and Colen have already made agreements with cannabis companies in Nevada, Maryland, California, and Colorado. 11.
3ders.org, a 3D printing news organization, expressed some reservations about Potent Rope in a July 2017 article. 11. First, 3ders.org qualmed that while the cannabis filament is ostensibly usable in any 3D printer, contaminating your printer with non-edible materials like PLA and ABS is potentially problematic. Additionally, 3ders.org is hesitant about the relatively niche target market at which Potent Rope is aimed: cannabis users with 3D printing skills. However, there certainly are cannabis users who are science enthusiasts and would seek involvement in the explosion of canna-related technology.
While the exact scope of this market may be unknowable right now, 3D printing and cannabis are quickly advancing industries. As Herr and Colen state, “combining cannabis with 3D printing technology is a logical next step for both industries. Cannabis supporters are looking for new ways to make use of the plant, and 3D-focused inventors are modifying, creating, and exploring new designs and materials.” 11.
The MB1 and Potent Rope are examples of the intersection of two quickly progressing industries: 3D printing and cannabis. As cannabis becomes increasingly legalized, entrepreneurs may seek to capitalize on the financial opportunities that such legalization (both recreational and medicinal) is most likely to drive.
- http://www.potentrope.com/; https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/potent-rope-marijuana-3d-printing/