The UKIPO releases its report on 3D printing

New uses of 3D printing technology have been picked up in news headlines in recent months or years, including the first 3D printing of a gun, multi-coloured 3D printed sweets of intricate shape, and 3D printed parts for the aerospace and automotive industries. Of course these headlines do not paint a complete picture of the current state of 3D printing technology. Whilst the frequency at which advances in 3D printing are covered in the news may give the impression that 3D printing was invented within the last three years, as also noted in our October 2013 article, the technology has actually been in existence since the 1980s.

Towards the end of 2013 the UKIPO (United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office) published its report on 3D printing, which provides an overview over the body of patents and applications in the field of 3D printing from a patent informatics point of view. The report notes a significant increase in patent filings since about the year 2000. The number of worldwide patent priority filings during 2011 for example is almost five times as many as it was in 1997.

In terms of geographical distribution, the patent data (from 1980 to present) can be analysed in several ways: when it comes to the distribution by publication country, the USA is in pole position, although fairly closely followed by Japan. The UK is in ninth place (after the USA, Japan, PCTs, China, Europe, South Korea, Australia and Germany). However, this distribution does not necessarily indicate where the research was carried out which led to the applications in question. Rather, it may be seen as an indication of which markets are considered to be important for 3D printing technology. Also, many 3D-printing related patent applications are patents directed to computer-implemented inventions, or “software patents”, and it is no secret that the USA is generally seen as a country where it is easier to obtain granted patent protection for computer-implemented inventions than, for example, the UK. What is more, patent protection in the UK (and other European countries) can of course be obtained via a European patent application, so this also explains why the number of published applications in the UK (as well as Germany, for instance) is rather low.

Perhaps a more accurate indication of where innovation is actually taking place can be obtained by analysing the data according to the priority country. The USA and Japan are again in first and second place respectively, but this time followed by China, South Korea and then, in fifth place, the UK. Saying that, the data may be slightly distorted - this time in favour of the UK - because of the speedy, relatively low-cost search which the UKIPO offers.

Whilst the top 10 assignees are dominated by US and East Asian companies, and no UK assignees are in the top 20, the UK fares better in terms of inventor country, where it is ranked fifth. This very much suggests that a fair amount of research in the 3D printing field is carried out in the UK, but the UK appears to lack in companies commercialising the output of this research.

The UKIPO report further examines the data in a “forward citation analysis”, whereby the number of instances in which a published application is cited against a later application (i.e. a forward citation) is considered to be an indication of the “value of the disclosure” or the “quality of the application”.

Yet another way the data can be analysed is in terms of subject matter, by means of a patent landscape analysis. One of the points arising from this analysis is the fact that there is a strong interest in 3D printing in the biomedical sector, where 3D printing finds (potential) application for example in bone or dental implants. This seems logical given the need in this field for products of a highly individualized, literally "one-off" nature - a need which 3D printing can satisfy more efficiently than conventional methods of manufacture. In other fields where the emphasis is on mass-produced, identical articles 3D printing has not (yet) had much success, in view of the relatively slow speed and higher costs at which articles can currently be 3D printed. As 3D printing technology moves forward - it is still very much at the beginning as many technical advances have only been made in the last few years - we are likely to see 3D printing penetrate more into areas where traditional methods of manufacture dominate today.

To conclude and reverting once more to the geographical aspects of this review: the UK performs better in terms of inventor country than in terms of priority filing country or generally as a patent filing country. The UK also currently lags behind as a patent assignee country in the field of 3D printing. Given that there appears to be enough ingenuity among UK inventors in this field, it seems a shame that UK companies do not tap into this effectively. Perhaps with appropriate stimulus more UK companies might be able to exploit this expanding area of technology - hopefully not just for producing guns n’ sweets. How about a 3D printed rose? It will be Valentine's Day soon!