Disruption in the IP ecosystem: 3D printing perspectives in start-ups

Industrial three-dimensional (3D) printing has nearly achieved mainstream success (for further details please see “3D printing: manufacturing 4.0 – adapting IP strategies”). It has many uses and benefits for manufacturers, including:

  • rapid prototyping and designing;
  • lower production volumes;
  • greater flexibility in product customisation;
  • virtual inventory; and
  • increased product lifecycles.

For over two decades, 3D printing has been used to create prototypes and has reduced product development times by avoiding multiple iterations in designing and prototyping. Recent research into 3D printing in the automotive sector shows that around 60% of inventions in this domain focus on solving problems relating to product prototyping. While most prototypes are machined using computer numerical control (CNC) providers, some companies (eg, Ford) are prototyping their parts using 3D printers. Further, start-ups are replicating existing CNC processes by sharing 3D printing technologies online. This approach has challenged existing methods by saving time and reducing the number of iterations.

It can also offer smaller companies the opportunity to challenge larger companies. For example, start-ups are collaborating with 3D printing service providers (eg, Redeye and Kraftswurx) to make end-use products, thereby avoiding manufacturing altogether; they need only manage the 3D printing files and marketing. 3D printing technologies have also increased product lifecycles. For example, Pirate3D has designed desktop printers that allow anyone to print their own 3D products. Users can hire a designer or design and print their own spare parts.

However, with more companies providing services using 3D printable files, the risk of infringement has increased. IP protection and monitoring is difficult because designs can be circulated, copied or modified by anyone with internet access. A single design right is unlikely to prevent infringement because:

  • designs are easily copied using computer-aided machining (CAM) solutions;
  • 3D pintable files are hard to track; and
  • entirely new designs can be created through minor modifications.

Therefore, a combination of patents and copyright protection is required for 3D printing designs.

3D printing patents in aerospace industry
Notable new owners of patents relating to 3D printing in the aerospace industry include AVIC, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Ansaldo Energia, Thales, Taicang Paiou Technology Consulting Service, Shenzhen Yuanmeng Precision Technology Research Institute, Shenyang Aerospace University, Blagdon Actuation Research, Yuanmeng Precision Technology Institute, SKF Aerospace, Qualcomm, Taicang Biqi New Material Research & Development, Florida Turbine Technologies, Shenzhen Ymp Technology Research Institute, GKN Aerospace, Sunlight Photonics, Imperial Innovations, Arconic and Liebherr Aerospace.

The majority of new owners in this sector are from China (51.72%), followed by the United States (15.51%). Analysis shows that new owners from China are less interested in filing patents in other jurisdictions: only 10% are filed through the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO), while the rest are filed in China.

In China, 54% of new patents in this sector relate to fuselages and wings of fixed-wing aircraft (largely involving metals and metal alloys), while 26% relate to the manufacture of rocket nozzles and modelling methods and cross-sections of origami structures used to make rockets.

In the United States, 50% of new patents in this sector relate to aircraft engine (ie, gas turbine) components, particularly blades, vanes and airfoils, while a few relate to aircraft communications systems (eg, antennas). The United States has always been a focal point for patents in this area.

In the United Kingdom, new patents in this sector generally involve structural components, including servo valves, actuators and wing ribs. There is less focus on gas turbine components.

3D printing patents in automotive industry
The automobile industry is a major target for developers of new 3D printing techniques in the following areas:

  • engine components;
  • heating, ventilation and air conditioning;
  • transmission, suspension, steering and braking systems;
  • vehicle body and frame components; and
  • accessories for creating new concepts from scratch.

Notable new owners of patents relating to 3D printing in the automotive industry include Mahle International, Sabic Global, Nagoya Oil Chemical, Dalian University of Technology, Freni Brembo SPA, Magna International, Southeast University Nanjing, Peugeot Citroen, Ningbo Huaxiang Electronic, Foundation Brakes France, Laser Zentrum Nord GmbH, EDAG Engineering GmbH, Greiner Perfoam and Jilin University.

The majority of new owners in this sector are from China (27.5%), closely followed by France (20%) and Germany (10%). Further, China appears to be a choice market for filing new patents (45%) when compared to France (40%) and Germany (32.5%).

Most patents in this sector relate to automobile frame and body parts manufacturing, including body panels, bumper beams, crush boxes for bumpers, attachment elements (eg, fixing, holding, reinforcing, acoustic, absorbing or compensating elements, hooks, eyes, speakers, arm rests, axles, brackets, buffers and fixing elements such as tabs and inserts), tail fins and brake system parts (eg, caliper housing, junction elements, connection rings and caliper body parts). Further, 27.5% of the total number of patents filed by new owners relate to manufacturing tooling devices (eg, casting molds for manufacturing tyres), prototypes and simulation models.

While 3D printing offers significant opportunities for start-ups, it is likely to disrupt operations in large companies. Further, IP protection in this domain is difficult under existing policies and using existing enforcement methods. Manufacturers – especially large companies – must focus on effective strategies to protect their designs in this field and develop more secure IP platforms without compromising financial growth.

This is an Insight article, written by a selected partner as part of IAM's co-published content. Read more on Insight

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