How products are made is changing. Innovative technologies are opening up new possibilities in engineering, providing novel materials and processes with which to create objects that until recently were unimaginable. The means of production are changing rapidly too, as they are brought out of distant factories into every high street and even our homes. Additive manufacturing (AM) – more commonly known as 3D printing – is paving the way to a safer, smarter and more sustainable world.
The Shaping Tomorrow conference in July 2020 also saw the launch of an EPO landscaping study that shows a surge in AM innovation across multiple industries. The study draws on the latest available patent information to analyse the geographical origins of this innovation as well as the biggest sectors and top applicants.
The report shows that European countries account for 47% (or 7 863) of all AM inventions for which patent applications were filed at the EPO between 2010 and 2018. Europe's leading position is largely attributable to Germany's performance, with the country generating 19% (or 3 155) of all patent applications in AM. Worldwide, the US is the top country of origin with 35% (or 5 747) of the applications.
The data indicate that the impact of AM technologies spans a large variety of industries. Since 2010, the use of AM in the health sector has generated the greatest demand for patents (4 018 applications), followed by energy and transportation, both of which account for significant patent application volumes (2 001 and 961 applications respectively). Rapid growth was also observed in areas such as industrial tooling, electronics, construction and consumer goods, and the food sector.
This diversity of sectors is also reflected in the profile of the top applicants at the EPO. The analysis shows that the top 25 applicants accounted for about 30% (or 6 548) of all AM patent applications filed between 2000 and 2018. The list is comprised of a highly diverse range of players from many different technology fields such as transportation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, information technology, electronics, imaging and consumer goods, as well as 3D-printing specialists such as Stratasys, 3D Systems and EOS.
While two out of three patent applications in AM technologies were filed by very large companies, the study also reveals that companies with 15 to 1 000 employees accounted for 10% (or 2 148) of applications, individual inventors and small businesses with fewer than 15 employees generated 12% (or 2 584), and universities, hospitals and public research organisations were responsible for over 11% (or 2 448), making these three cohorts significant actors in the AM innovation ecosystem.