Patent applications show: 3D printing is on the upswing
China used to be considered the world’s workbench. The production of all kind of things made China economically successful. However, the image of China as the world’s largest “production site” may soon have to face some changes.
3D printers are now ready for serial production, have entered the economic world and have the potential to bring about many changes. The 3D printing technology is now mature enough to be of interest even to individuals.
3D printing – a versatile and flexible technology
3D printing is no printing method in its usual sense. This method generates three-dimensional objects made of plastic, synthetic resin, metal, ceramics, biomaterials, or foodstuffs. The material is first liquefied and then step by step hardened through chemical or physical procedures.
In addition, a computer-generated 3D model defining the coordinates for each position and layer of the workpiece in all three dimensions (x, y, z) is required. These data are then sent to the printer. With the help of CAD programs, users may design and print any shape they want. There are also websites offering 3D printing models for download. 3D scanners can capture works of art or other objects and transform them into 3D models.
In the meantime, 3D printing has become so user-friendly and workpieces can be manufactured so easily that there is now a wide spectrum of application. For example, custom-fit spare parts can be produced in the desired shape and quantity precisely where they are needed. We can also imagine such printers being used on a large scale in private households. A first generation of 3D desktop printers is already on the market.
STN patent searches show that 3D printers are on the upswing
Just like computers conquered private households 30 years ago, we may assume that 3D printers will soon be a common sight as well. 3D printing has left its niche of specialized modeling applications and is getting ready for mass production.
A search for 3D printers on the new STN platform shows an almost exponential increase of patent publications in this field of technology (Fig. 1). Patent applications are always a clear indicator that companies have identified a market potential for a certain field of technology and want to protect their innovative products.
Our search was carried out in the international patent database Derwent World Patents Index (DWPI) produced by Thomson Reuters. Since neither the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) nor the International Patent Classification (IPC) classify “3D printing” in an unambiguous way, the search was carried out as a pure keyword search. The patent classifications mentioned were used quite inconsistently in the relevant patent documents. For example, some patents were classified in IPC section Performing Operations, others in IPC section Chemistry. Still, the patent classifications proved useful when it came to checking the relevance of the documents in the results list.
Fig. 1: International patent publications (PY.B) in the field of 3D printing for the years 2000 to 2015
By analyzing all patent documents from the time period between 2000 and 2015 we can make a ranking of the most active patent applicants. Among the top five is 3D Systems, an American company whose founder and Vice President Chuck Hull1 is the actual inventor of 3D printing.
On March 3, 1986 the USPTO published Chuck Hull’s patent US4575330 under the title “Apparatus for production of three-dimensional objects by stereolithography”. This was the first patent ever published for 3D printing, a groundbreaking invention.
Fig. 2: Patent drawing (US4575330) of the first 3D printer invented by Chuck Hull
Another US company among the top five patent applicants is Stratasys, who also filed a patent for a 3D printer at the end of the 1980s under the title: “Apparatus and method for creating three-dimensional objects“.
This patent, published in 1989, was the first to describe the Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology which is still the most commonly used 3D printing method. Its inventor, the American Scott Crump, is also the founder of Stratasys.
Fig. 3: Drawing from patent US5121329 published on October 30,1989
The breakthrough after a quarter of a century
Almost 30 years have gone by since Chuck Hull and Scott Crump made the two basic inventions mentioned above. And, as shown in the timeline of Fig. 1, for many years there were hardly any activities in this field of technology. The number of patents filed for 3D printing worldwide remained at a very low level.
Only in 2012 research sped up again: Suddenly the number of patents published significantly increased. Particularly noteworthy is that there are now many Chinese companies among the patent applicants. From 2000 through 2015, Stratasys and 3D Systems, the pioneering innovators, were able to maintain their competitive advantage.
If we narrow down the analysis of patent applicants to the past four years (2012-2015), the results partly corroborate the weak economic situation of the two companies. Only Stratasys is still among the top applicants (Fig. 4) whereas 3D Systems has been relegated to a much lower rank (Fig. 4).
Hardly any traditional printer manufacturers among the top patent applicants
Some of the main patent applicants listed in Figure 4 also produce 3D printers. Companies like Print Rite Unicorn Image Prod., MakerBot or Stratasys manufacture and sell 3D printers. But there are also strikingly many Chinese universities and academic institutions doing research in this field and listed among the top applicants.
An analysis of the patents confirms that the 3D printing technology is by no means just a further development of traditional printing. Therefore it comes as no surprise that the traditional printer manufacturers hardly show any activity in this field. Among the most active patent applicants are only a few well-known companies such as Xerox and Hewlett Packard.
Canon is said to have presented a prototype of a 3D printer for the first time in 2015 at the Expo in Paris. This proves that experience and know-how in traditional printing technologies cannot be transferred to 3D printing. Instead, this technology is to a large extent based on optimized melting and hardening procedures. 3D printing requires a combined know-how of materials science, computerized process control, and mechanical engineering.
Fig. 4: Patent applicants in the field of 3D printing in the years 2012 to 2015
Fields of application
Up to now, 3D printing was mainly used to create complex models of individual parts or entire devices or machines, for example, in the automotive industry. Now it seems that there will soon be an end to this niche existence.
In November 2015 Audi claimed to have reconstructed a whole Grand Prix racing car from 1936 by means of 3D printing2. What is more, this car was not made of plastic but entirely printed in metal. 3D metal printing is based on selective sintering of minuscule metal grains by means of a laser. Audi plans to further develop this manufacturing technology in the future, with the aim to use 3D metal printers in serial production.
There are countless fields of application in medicine, too: Prostheses can be manufactured that are lighter, cheaper, and better fitting than the usual ones. Medical devices such as stethoscopes can be cost-efficiently printed in 3D; or surgeons may make their own, individual surgical instruments on the 3D printer. Even biological tissue, e.g., cells, can be gently processed by 3D printing methods.
There seem to be hardly any limits to the range of potential applications for 3D printing. This technology may bring about several changes in the economic cycles as we know them today. For example, spare parts could be printed on site, so that transport and storage costs can be avoided. Consumer goods of all kind could be printed out directly and, if required, personalized at the customer’s premises. This would directly threaten the existence of intermediaries and transport companies. Professions like those of dental technicians or modelers might change fundamentally. Their mechanical skills would be replaced by 3D printing and the focus of their professional activities would shift to programming 3D printers instead.