Global patent filings for 3D printing technologies between 2013 and 2020 grew eight times faster than for all technology areas overall, according to a new report from the European Patent Office in Berlin titled Innovation Trends in Additive Manufacturing.
“This revolutionary approach to manufacturing has quickly evolved from a niche market to a disruptive force impacting value chains across a wide range of sectors,” the report said.
More than 8,000 international patent families (IPFs) related to 3D printing – or patent applications filed in multiple countries to protect the same invention – were published in 2020 alone, representing more than 2% of all licences. As 3D printing continues to evolve as a manufacturing method, patent data provides valuable insight into the technology landscape and areas of innovation within the industry.
Topping the list of sectors where 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), is innovating the fastest are healthcare, medicine and transportation. “The capabilities of additive manufacturing prove particularly advantageous for patient-specific implants, anatomical models and dental applications,” according to the study.
Patents in this area relate to the machines, the 3D printers themselves, as well as the processes, materials, applications and software.
US and Europe drive AM innovation
The United States accounts for the largest number of patent filings, 40% of all filings between 2001 and 2020, followed closely by Europe, notably Germany, with 33%. Together, these regions account for 73% of global AM innovation. China’s contributions remain relatively low, at 4%.
Although large technology-related companies, such as General ElectricGERaytheon Technologies, Siemens, 3M, Johnson & JohnsonJNJBASF and HPHPQrepresent the lion’s share of patent filings, the list also includes several established 3D printing companies, such as Markforged, Desktop Metal, EOS, Materialize, and Stratasys.SSYS.
Smaller additive manufacturing companies and emerging startups come further down the list, but reflect some of the most exciting innovations.
California-based 3D printer and materials manufacturer Nexa3D has filed 14 patents since 2020 covering everything from new 3D printing methods and innovations on specific machine parts to advances on current processes that increase speed and reduce energy consumption.
Fortify 3D, a Boston-based digital manufacturing company, has filed nine patents in the past three years related to its digital composite manufacturing platform. The company has received millions of dollars in government funding to develop 3D printed tools for automotive lightweighting to replace more expensive and time-consuming CNC tools.
Another Californian company, Azure Printed Houses, aims to fundamentally change the construction industry with its 3D printing technology. One of its patents, filed in 2022, covers the process of depositing construction materials in a continuous bead to form the walls of a structure.
Massachusetts-based materials manufacturer 6K has filed 16 patents since 2020 covering its method of producing metallic materials for additive manufacturing and battery storage, which is cheaper and more sustainable than current methods.
Essentium, based in Texas, manufactures materials and production platforms for industrial 3D printing aimed at complementing or replacing traditional processes. It has filed dozens of patents in recent years for printer components, applications, machines and processes.
Other US companies that have filed 3D printing-related patents for their innovations in recent years include Sprintray (dental 3D printers), Sintx Technologies (medical ceramics), Tepha Inc. (tissue engineering), Evolve Additive Solutions (polymer 3D printing), Relativity. Space (metallic materials and methods), Seurat Tech (3D printers and methods), Adaptive 3D Tech (polymer materials) and Paxis LLC (3D printers and methods).
A significant share (12%) of 3D printing innovations come from universities and public research organizations, including Harvard University, MIT and Abbott Labs, particularly in the health and medical fields, such as 3D printing of artificial organs and tissues.
What is patented?
In 2020, around 22 patents related to 3D printing were filed every day. In the medical field, patents for implants and prostheses have quadrupled since 2012. Dozens of patents related to 3D printing of bioresorbable bone implants alone have been filed in recent years.
In the transportation sector, which includes aerospace, patents are dominated by aircraft companies that use 3D printing to produce lightweight parts that reduce overall fuel consumption and emissions. Patents for materials were dominated by polymers, but also included biomaterials, metals, ceramics and glass, as well as cements and concrete.
When it comes to different 3D printing technologies, most of the patents relate to resin 3D printing, also known as vat polymerization.
Software and digital is the smallest sector of 3D printing technology, but has shown the strongest growth since 2013, at 37% year-over-year. The digital sector encompasses technologies related to software, data processing and digital design tools that enable and enhance the printing process. Patents in this area are dominated by software companies Siemens and AutodeskADSKand focus largely on the design and simulation of parts and products specifically intended to be 3D printed.
The European Patent Office says that many new and exciting applications of 3D printing have emerged more recently in different industrial sectors. Although small, they represent emerging areas of 3D printing. The food industry, for example, has only 50 patents filed in 2020, but the topics can hint at enormous potential. There are 3D printed vegetarian proteins, personalized nutritional supplements, and lab-grown meats.
The energy sector, which has long used 3D printing to repair worn and broken parts, is now moving toward sustainability by leveraging additive manufacturing to reduce physical part inventories and speed up part production on demand.
“Additive manufacturing has gained traction in the consumer goods sector,” the report notes. “This innovative technology is used to produce a wide range of consumer products, including eyewear, footwear, fashion, jewelry and sports equipment. »
Overall, the European Patent Office’s findings point to a world in which the pace of innovation in additive manufacturing technologies has accelerated significantly in recent years and shows no signs of slowing down.