13 July 2020
European patent applications for additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, increased at an average annual rate of 36% from 2015 to 2018, a new study from the European Patent Office (EPO) shows. This is more than ten times greater than the average yearly growth of all applications at the Office combined in the same period (3.5%). The report, entitled "Patents and additive manufacturing - Trends in 3D printing technologies", further demonstrates that Europe is a global leader in AM, with European inventors and businesses accounting for almost half of AM patent applications filed with the EPO in the period from 2010 to 2018.
"The surge in additive manufacturing is part of the broader, rapid rise of digital technologies overall, confirming that the digital transformation of the economy is fully reflected in patent applications reaching the EPO," said EPO President António Campinos. "Europe has become a global hub for innovation in fast-growing digital fields, including additive manufacturing technologies. This strength is clearly reflected in the list of top AM applicants, with European inventors and businesses submitting almost half of the patent applications in the past decade."
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. Among the other European countries, Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the Netherlands also show a strong pattern of specialisation in AM patenting. Worldwide, the US is the top country of origin with 35% (or 5 747) of the applications.
The data further 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 filing 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. Led by large US firms General Electric and United Technologies, with Europe's Siemens in third place, 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 pure 3D-printing specialists such as Stratasys, 3D Systems and EOS. The US and Europe also dominate the ranking overall, with 11 US and eight European companies among the top 25 applicants.
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.