Future of 3D printing is in US and Europe patenting

A medical worker tests a Decathlon snorkeling mask upgraded with 3D-printed respiratory valves fittings on March 27 at the Erasme Hospital in Brussels, Belgium. — AFP

The future of manufacturing may lie with companies like Italy’s Isinnova SRL, which saw a need for respirator valves in its Covid-19-stricken area and was able make hundreds in two days using 3D printing rather than waiting a week for ones made in Chinese factories.

It’s an example of how the United States and Europe are leading in innovation in additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, according to a new study by the European Patent Office. While a relatively small number of patents are issued each year, it’s the fastest-growing technology field, with companies like General Electric Co, Raytheon Technologies Corp and Siemens AG getting the most patents.

"Most of them are industrial actors that are considering this technology to change their approach to manufacturing,” said EPO’s Chief Economist Yann Ménière. "It has a very high versatility – it’s very flexible and scalable.”

The technology uses digital files to create products in layers and started as a way to design prototypes. It’s quickly evolving into a way to build medical devices, car parts, shoes and even elaborate cakes and Hershey Co chocolate.

Patents, which give their owners the exclusive right to use an invention, can be a barometer – albeit not a perfect one – to show where companies and individuals are focusing their research efforts. It also can help identify which companies and regions are likely to profit from emerging technologies.

The European agency’s study showed that the bulk of the patenting is by established multinationals like GE, aircraft makers Boeing Co and Airbus SA, medical device companies Johnson & Johnson and Zimmer Biomet Holdings Inc, and consumer goods makers Nike Inc and Procter & Gamble Co.

Still, 20% of new 3D-related European patents are going to small companies and another 10% to universities. Among research institutes, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California were top recipients.

"The surge in additive manufacturing is part of the broader, rapid rise of digital technologies overall,” said António Campinos, president of the agency, which is holding an online conference on 3D this week.

Isinnova, a 14-person company that makes prototypes, was brought into the battle for coronavirus in March when a local hospital asked it to make replacement valves for respirators, said the company’s chief executive, Cristian Fracassi.

The 14-employee company was able to make 100 valves within a day, and then designed one – named the Charlotte Valve after Fracassi’s wife – that could transform a common snorkeling mask into life-saving respirators. Isinnova has since sent Charlotte Valve specifications around the world, where it’s been used 150,000 times, and even started a fundraiser so poorer hospitals in Mozambique and Burkina Faso could buy the printers.

"Of course, when you need a lot of pieces, having them made in China can be cheaper,” Fracassi said. "When you need a few pieces and the most important thing is time, a 3D printer shortens delivery time.”

And it’s not just respirators – 3D printers have been used throughout the world to make protective gear like masks for hospital workers.

"We were already seeing this rapid rise of 3D printing and all of a sudden during Covid-19, 3D was able to step in where traditional manufacturing couldn’t keep up,” said Chris Higgins, a patent lawyer with Orrick in Washington, who co-chairs the firm’s 3D printing practice.

Chinese companies and inventors, which are aggressively patenting innovations in the fields of telecommunications and computers, accounted for less than 1% of 3D patents, the study showed. – Bloomberg

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