The energy industry is undergoing a period of significant transition. Increased energy demand and net-zero targets around the world are driving a change in the energy supply mix. In Scotland, for example, wind power is estimated to be the fastest-growing renewable energy technology. Scotland's first offshore wind turbine is in the Moray Firth of the North Sea and was set up in August 2006. This turbine was the world's largest at the time with a maximum output of 5 MW. As of January 2022, 17 offshore wind projects, with a combined potential generating capacity of 25 GW, are under development in Scottish waters.
The challenges of offshore wind energy projects include support structure costs, high operating and maintenance (O&M) costs, electrical infrastructure costs, stricter environmental standards, and less developed construction techniques are significant. This rapid expansion of offshore wind as an energy source provides an opportunity to reduce costs while deployment times by embracing disruptive technology. Digitisation of information, IoT-connected devices, and machine learning are just some examples of such technologies. Another potential disruptive technology in the manufacturing process is additive manufacturing, such as 3D printing. Innovators are pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved in terms of product design, energy efficiencies, and roll-out speed. 3D printing provides a powerful tool to the offshore wind industry.
While offshore wind projects support sea-borne transportation which may be less problematic than land-based transport of their onshore counterparts, transportation of replacement parts still results in high O&M costs. The ability to manufacture parts on-site, on a nearby vessel, or at nearby coastal sites not only reduces transportation costs, but storage costs as well. This applies not only to the construction and servicing of the turbine, but also to the maintenance of associated electrical components. Further, the carbon footprint of operating such a maintenance supply chain may be reduced compared with conventional supply and distribution systems.
Yet adopters of additive manufacturing in the offshore wind farm supply chain must be mindful of the intellectual property (IP) challenges posed by this technology. Established patent practices, developed with only traditional manufacturing methods in mind, are at risk of inherently linking the protection they provide to these conventional methods. Such patents may be unsuitable to cover a product made by additive manufacturing. Further, additive manufacturing only requires a 3D printer and a digital file, both of which are readily available and relatively straightforward to use. This means that end users can become manufacturers, with manufacturing being distributed across the globe in line with the consumer base. Global IP strategies must account for the distributed nature of production, and change in focusing protection on specific manufacturing and distribution hubs. Additionally, traditionally drafted patents may not cover digital printing files for 3D printing the patented product. Without protection for every step in the additive manufacturing value change, a patent may not adequately cover a competitor's dealings in the digital files associated with 3D printing.
A clear, well-thought-out IP strategy can assist in protecting and furthering a company’s interests, particularly in times of change. However, the opportunities provided by additive manufacturing in the offshore wind sector may threaten traditional IP practice, regardless of whether the patent owner intends to use 3D printing themselves. To protect against this risk, patent professionals need to have an intimate knowledge of not only patent law, but also the capabilities of additive manufacturing as applied to the offshore wind sector.
As the industry looks to cut costs, create innovative solutions and improve efficiencies, we will likely see an increase in the use of additive manufacturing. This technology provides exciting opportunities, but it can also pose significant risks, particularly to patent holders who do not take the opportunities provided by additive manufacturing into account when preparing their intellectual property (IP) strategy.