A report from the European Patent Office shows a wealth of data regarding innovative activity.
The EPO is the authority within the EU for issuance of patents. As such it is an excellent source to observe the progress of 3D printing and additive manufacturing through the submission of new, innovative approaches to the technology. Fortunately, the EPO has issued an excellent 84-page summary of this activity.
Let’s take a look.
Here we see the frequency of patents from the EPO. Of note are the dates: while patent issuance seemed mostly consistent for many years, there was a curve beginning in 2013-2014, just around the time of maximum hype regarding consumer 3D printing. However, while that particular application of 3D printing has faded somewhat, the patents have simply grown since then. While the chart ends at 2018, it’s highly likely the curve continues to the present.
In 2018 the majority of the EPO AM patents related to the Healthcare industry, and numbered 907, more than twice the second category, Energy. Transportation, Tooling and Electronics were distant on the list, with the bottom predictably being Construction, Consumer Goods and Food, of which the last presented 23 patents in 2018.
Perhaps this suggests areas for new research and experimentation, as it seems there are plenty of organizations already working on Health and Energy.
The EPO report listed the top 25 applicants for the period 2000-2018, in terms of the number of applications. The two leaders were US corporations, GE and United Technologies. GE is no surprise, given their broad entry into the technology in recent years.
There were multiple chemical companies on the list, including BASF (363), 3M (314), DSM (157), EVONIK (151), SABIC (139), and DOW DUPONT (131). This suggests ongoing innovation in the materials areas, and this could lead to even more powerful 3D printing materials in future years.
While 3D printer manufacturing companies were present, they were typically far down the list. Stratasys (166), 3D Systems (161), and EOS (139) appear, along with the surprise entry, XYZprinting with 139 patents. We know that XYZprinting has a very broad portfolio of equipment, but this list of patents suggests they may have more to come.
Several printing and optical companies appear, including Ricoh, Canon, and Fujifilm. Some of these have presented 3D printing products, but it seems that this is an area where this type of established company wishes to enter.
While the EPO represents Europe, non-European companies may file patents for their processes with the EPO to allow them to use them in that region. According to the EPO, US companies represented 34.8% of the applications, while the rest of the world had 17.8%. I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Does this mean Asian companies do not wish to compete in Europe? Or are they not generating many new patents?
In all, this is an intriguing report that shows a glimpse of what has been happening in Europe in innovative 3D printing.
The continual rise in the number of related patents creates a bit of a barrier for new entrants, who may well find their innovation has already been developed. This could either cause them to stop development, or license the rights to the process from the patent owner.
In the earlier days of 3D printing there were far fewer patents and things were easier for new companies. That’s no longer the case.