The scenario for 3D printing patents is as complex as one can imagine. Not only is 3D printing the most horizontal technology that exists, with specific patentable applications in just about every segment of manufacturing, but it also spans multiple technology areas including mechanical (hardware), IT (software and automation) and material science. In addition, not only can 3D printing technologies be patented but also anything made with a 3D printer that was not made before (and most things have never been made before with a 3D printer). Finally, 3D printing can be used to easily copy patented (and copyrighted) products, adding more complexity to the legal landscape.

We all know that the success story of 3D printing officially began in 1984 when Charles W Hull applied for a patent for stereolithography. In 1989 S Scott Crump of Stratasys invented fused deposition modeling, which fuses material layer by layer until a 3D object is created. This style of additive manufacturing is what most people associate with 3D printing today. In 2009 the patent for fused deposition modeling expired and companies started to take a different approach by trying to sell to consumers instead of business to business. Together with the rise of Kickstarter, a perfect storm formed and hype around 3D printing in the early 2010s was born.

Top 3 owners of 3D printing patents. Please consult the IPlytics report for the full list of the top 10 companies. Source credit: IPlytics.

Top 3 owners of 3D printing patents. Source credit: IPlytics.

Several patent experts have undertaken the challenge of trying to clarify the 3D printing patent landscape and how it is evolving. In the past, VoxelMatters collaborated on a fully comprehensive interactive report that will enable companies to easily search for and identify previously released metal AM patents. Another great resource to start learning about patents in 3D printing is this free report from Tech Insights. It dates back to 2013 – an eternity in 3D printing – but it will give you a detailed and full overview of everything that happened until then. More recently, German company IPlytics published a free report on the evolution of 3D printing patents and relative litigation.

This IPlytics report looks at additive manufacturing and 3D printing from an IP perspective, again demonstrating that patents for 3D printing technologies are on the rise. In order to identify 3D print-related patents, the IPlytics platform database performed an extensive keyword search of worldwide filed patents in the 3D-print technology field. The search was based on the patent’s content, making use of state-of-the-art stemming and semantic indexing methods. Between 2007 and 2019 the analysis identifies 95,302 patents and 43,718 patent families (unique patents in the INPADOC database) relevant for 3D printing. The report then goes on to identify the largest patent holders (spoiler: GE has the most, HP a close second) and the countries where the most patents have been filed (spoiler: the US is first).

The number of 3D printing patent applications filed per year (source credit: IPlytics)

One very interesting chart is the one that concerns litigation cases: between 2000 and 2018 there have been 155 litigation cases in the United States in the 3D printing field. IPlytics found that from the 155 litigated patents in 3D printing a total of 71 (45%) have been transferred (reassigned) at some point in time. By comparing the date of the first transfer with the date of the first litigation the IPlytics platform was used to assess the transfer timing before or after the litigation took place. It turned out that 80% of all patents that have been both litigated and transferred have changed owners before the litigation, with 22.5% doing so within the same year.

Patenting is increasing sharply for 3D printing technologies. Further, patents relating to 3D printing are increasingly transferred and litigated. Senior patent managers and patent directors involved in industries where 3D printing has an impact should constantly monitor this evolving situation. VoxelMatters‘ AM Focus Patents intends to provide an updated patent landscape and an access point to the tools to help you do just that.

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