While the first industrial revolution initiated the replacement of human labour with machines, the second introduced mass production. Now, over a century later, digital manufacturing capabilities are making standardisation obsolete.

Could this be the start of a third industrial revolution?

The dental industry has become a major target for the development of new three-dimensional (3D) printing techniques. Dental technicians are already using 3D printing methods to manufacture orthodontic equipment such as dental implants, brackets, surgical tools and impression trays. Patents for 3D printing in the dental industry were first filed in 1984. Thereafter, filing rates have achieved a steady pace. With regard to R&D design prospects in 3D printing, there are several types of production methods available, including:

  • fused deposition modelling;
  • laser sintering;
  • stereo lithography;
  • digital light processing;
  • electron beam melting;
  • laminated object manufacturing; and
  • direct metal laser sintering.

3D printing has also been taken up by the aerospace industry. It is being used to make a variety of complex geometries, including:

  • air foils with complicated internal cooling passages;
  • fuel injectors;
  • heat exchangers;
  • blades;
  • vanes;
  • fuselage and wing ribs;
  • combustor liners; and
  • electronic components.

With its high degree of accuracy and precision, 3D printing is not limited to parts and component manufacturing, but also tooling applications such as cores and inserts for die casting, jigs and vices. Digital modelling technologies, in conjunction with 3D printing, have made things more convenient for manufacturers. Conventional methods like machining are time consuming and costly.

Additive manufacturing: patent trends in the dental and aerospace industries

The above graph clearly shows that additive manufacturing has gained more traction in the aerospace industry than in the dental industry, thereby indicating enormous opportunities in the former. While the dental industry has utilised cutting-edge technological advancements such as digitisation and mass production to prepare for additive manufacturing, the aerospace industry is struggling to keep up.

Aerospace

Dental

The number of patents filed declined sharply in 2005 as compared to 2004. This may be due to the fact that in 2004, a number of individual inventors and universities filed patents in this field. In 2004, 25% of patents included information about a 3D-printed component. This percentage was closer to 37% in 2005 (a year that saw the emergence of Norsk Titanium).

 

Patent filing activity decreased by 41% in 2009, the year which marked the start of a global depression and decreased company revenues. For example, United Technologies reported a $6.9 billion decrease in annual revenue in 2009 as compared to 2008. Airbus also reported a decrease in their revenue in 2009 (€400 million) as compared to the previous year.

 

There was a steady growth in patent filings in this domain from 2009, with United Technologies leading the charge.

 

The research suggests that the patent focus lies in manufacturing components such as engine turbine blades, fuel nozzles and engine brackets.

 

Balancing conventional and 3D-printing technologies has presented various challenges for the industry. Research analysis shows that 'ineffective manufacturing method' and 'low component efficiency' are the most commonly occurring technical challenges. This is because of a requirement to continually improve the efficiency of components that must operate at higher temperatures.

While 3D printing in this industry has seen fewer patents as compared to aerospace, it has grown consistently over time, along with the number of patent applicants in the domain. Since 2010, approximately 57% of the total number of patent families filed, which is a good indicator of 3D printing adaptability in the dental industry.

 

The research suggests that the patent focus mainly lies in manufacturing dental prostheses (including dental implants, crowns, retainers, partial dentures, teeth and jaws), with constant growth in patent filings each year.

 

The use of polymers, metals, metal alloys and ceramics has increased over time as compared to composites. Wax and glass have emerged as common materials for 3D printing in dentistry.

 

The research suggests that most of the patents focus on improving solutions for efficiency, accuracy, scanning times and denture retentions in manufacturing. Specific issues, including authentication and the mass manufacturing of end-use production have been resolved by patent innovations which utilise 3D printing (eg, US Patent 6,976,627 concerning the mass production of customised articles).

 

Mitsui Chemicals, 3M, Align Technology, Dentsply Sirona and BEGO Medical own the most patents for 3D printing innovations in the dental industry. A large percentage of patents in this sector originate from the United States, China and Germany.

Comment

Patent trends clearly indicate that additive manufacturing is overtaking traditional manufacturing processes.

Research shows that companies are striving to make higher-quality products in larger quantities. Therefore, the need for additive manufacturing technology can no longer be doubted. However, the materials required are an expensive factor for companies considering this production method. Despite extensive research, additive manufacturing technology still lacks optimum-quality materials at low costs.

The mass manufacturing of end-use products through 3D printing seems to be the next big thing; but there is room for improvement. Companies are finding solutions to reduce manufacturing times and increase mechanical strength and accuracy in order to ensure the optimum quality of end-use products. Further, the complete automation and digitisation of manufacturing processes in 3D printing would solve issues relating to customised product manufacturing, without the need for human intervention.

This article first appeared in IAM. For further information please visit www.iam-media.com.