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When a new type of technology is developed, it often receives a lot of publicity as people speculate about its potential to become truly disruptive and have wide-reaching impact. However, the hype often outpaces the rate of technological progress—that is to say, disruptive potential exists, but for a number of reasons it may not be possible for it to be realised as soon as a new technology is invented.

What can we learn from hype?

The concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has excited and terrified people for many decades, sparking a string of both positive and negative discussions in the news and in popular culture. The fears about a ‘Skynet’ have yet to be realised, and unfortunately we are still awaiting our own personal robot friend that we can laugh and share experiences with on a human level (Siri doesn’t count…yet).

When AI was first pioneered, computer memory and processing speeds were the major limiting factors to its commercialisation and adoption. Now that those obstacles have been alleviated by other technological developments, huge strides are being taken in the field of AI, with the likes of IBM’s Watson and Google’s Deep Mind amongst others, although many of the applications of the technology aren’t necessarily what we’d all originally imagined.

3D printing is a technology which has similarly captured the imagination, and many companies are jumping on the opportunity to realise the potential applications it could have. But while you would be forgiven for thinking 3D printing is a relatively new concept, the foundational ideas around 3D printing have been around for decades, and it’s quite remarkable how diverse these ideas have been over time.

How far have we come?

3D printing today is often associated with a process called ‘Rapid Prototyping’ – which is used by research and development (R&D) teams to create a physical representation of a new invention so that it can be tested and validated. Many of the early glimpses of 3D printing, however, had different end-goals in mind.

For example, the most cited patent in this space, by far, is for a machine for making fabric from non-woven fleece-like sheets by firing ‘melt-spun monofilaments’ at a wire gauze conveyor belt. The patent was filed in 1972, and has since been referenced in 2,124 further patents.

Fast-forward a few decades, in 1999 a patent was published that envisioned a method for creating 3D objects—yet instead of using plastics or metal, the objects were formed from yarn. It was a physical machine connected to a computer that would create object designs by literally knitting them layer by layer. While it is unclear how useful the application of this invention could be in industry, the patent has still been cited within a number of different patents, including this later innovation in 3D printing technology now owned by 3D Systems—a leader in the industry.

What we can gather from this is that 3D printing is certainly not limited to one particular way of doing things, and innovators are steadily seeking out new, more efficient or more effective methods of 3D printing.

Electron Beam Melting (EBM) is an example of a new 3D printing technique which is highly energy-efficient and improves control over porosity, but requires much more supply-chain regulation for the manufacturing of the raw printing materials. A high-quality type of additive manufacturing, EBM manufactured products have, for example, been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for orthopaedic and craniofacial implants.

Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM), on the other hand, involves no chemical reactions and its building materials are relatively cheap and readily available, however it makes it difficult to create hollow objects and isn’t great at producing complex shapes. Despite its lack of accuracy, it is one of the fastest and most affordable ways for R&D teams to create 3D prototypes— with one Irish firm pioneering the technology behind using A4 sheets of paper to achieve LOM.

Our analytics show that a significant portion of patents in 3D printing revolve around the different methods of additive manufacturing. We are also seeing a lot of activity in the use of metals, ceramics, cement, and non-macromolecular organic compounds in 3D printing, demonstrating that the scientists and engineers involved are constantly looking at different potential materials that could be used in the 3D printing process to further expand the commercial use cases for the technology.

Measuring success

In terms of patent activity (a good proxy for innovation), the main companies that are innovating in this area are (in order): General Electric, United Technologies Corporation, Hewlett-Packard, 3M, Boeing, Stratasys, MIT and 3D Systems. The number of patents doesn’t necessarily equate to commercial success in a particular technology area however, and firms looking for ROI must be careful to funnel their R&D investment towards the most commercially viable channels.

In 2014, 3D Systems filed a patent for a multi-print-headed system capable of incorporating more than one material in the same layer during the printing process. The data tells us that this patent is now one of the most commercially valuable patents in the industry. 3D Systems identified and pursued a critical innovation in 3D printing, and will be reaping the rewards.

Interestingly, the number of litigation cases in 3D printing patents has decreased substantially since its peak of over 70 cases in 2012, while licensing activity is showing steady growth year-on-year. This seems to suggest that there is still significant potential for further growth and adoption within this technology area.

Accomplishments and potential

Gartner reported in 2016 that it expected sales of 3D printers to double from 2015 to 2016, and said that widespread acceptance in industry was due to the ease in which companies could use the technology to “create prototypes, augment manufacturing processes and produce finished products.” The technology greatly reduces the associated costs of prototyping and makes it much easier to make small changes to products. In addition, businesses in isolated locations, such as oil rigs at sea or mining operations in the desert can reduce the space taken up by spare parts, by replacing storage space with a 3D printer, enabling them to create spare parts to-order. There are clear benefits to using 3D printing in the industrial sector, and this technology application appears to be growing.

Despite the lack of accessibility to the consumer market, there have been examples of consumer focused applications such as a 3D printed raspberry and a restaurant that creates all its food by 3D printing it. These early applications are rather gimmicky, and not necessarily commercially sustainable. Why would a person invest so much money and time to create a piece of food, for example, that could more quickly and cheaply be purchased elsewhere?

Lack of available designs for the printers to process, the sheer size of some 3D printers, as well as the cost have probably led most consumers to believe that this technology is not yet at the stage where they can make use of it. On a more positive note, the same could have once been said for the computer—once the domain of large corporations, governments and universities, Moore’s law and continued innovation have gradually spread the benefits of personal computing so that most people now have a computer in their pocket.

The potential applications of 3D printing are widely understood, and history has shown that people will persist if the possibility is exciting enough. Thanks to the ground-breaking and incremental innovations in this technology area, we are seeing steady growth in the use of additive manufacturing, although we are yet to see serious consumer adoption. Once the practical and economic aspects of production improves, the diversity of potential applications and will continue to drive its commercial success.

The data in this article was pulled from PatSnap’s R&D analytics platform using the following patent search query: “3D print” or “additive manufacturing” or “three dimensional printing”

Ray Chohan is senior vice president of corporate strategy and a founding member of PatSnap in Europe. Prior to Patsnap, Ray was business development director at Datamonitor. Ray now leads corporate development where he focuses his time on creating new partnerships and go-to-market strategies.

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