The field of 3D printing has been growing rapidly for years. It has applications in many areas of life and the economy, such as healthcare, aerospace, and parts replacement. 3D printing also reshapes supply chains and democratizes manufacturing. Fueled by this growth, 3D printing-related patent filings are trending upward.

The graph and table below show the growth of issued 3D printing-related patents since 1995 (in blue) and of published patent applications since 2001 (in magenta). Patent applications are not made public at the time of filing—they are usually published 18 months after filing—so the graph shows only published applications. Also, counting 3D printing-related patents is not an exact science. Depending on the patent title, a patent covering 3D printing technology may not be picked up in a keyword search, and searches can also include false positives, for example, products made by additive processes that are not typically viewed as 3D printing technologies. The U.S. Patent Office recently developed a new standard classification system for identifying patents related to 3D printing, which should help to identify new patents going forward.

Although most of the 3D printing patents and applications identified in the graph and table are for utility patents covering technological advancements, a small number are design patents, which protect ornamental designs.

From this data we can see a slow rise of 3D printing-related patents from the mid 1990s through 2014, when issued patents began to surge. The sharp surge of patent applications began in around 2014, largely owing to the expiration of Material Extrusion and Vat Photopolymerization patents issued in the 1980s and early 1990s, such as Chuck Hull/3D Systems' U.S. Patent No. 4,575,330 and Scott Crump/Stratasys' U.S. Patent No. 5,121,329. This surge of applications was followed by a boom in issued patents beginning in around 2015. In 2016, the number of issued patents and published applications substantially exceeded 2015. The continued increase in published applications should result in a significant increase in the number of patents that issue in 2017 and beyond. It often takes two or more years from patent application filing to patent issuance.

Issued patents can be categorized by sector, as shown in the following table. Despite daily news about 3D printed innovations in healthcare, the proportion of 3D printing patents issued in the medical/dental fields declined substantially in 2016, replaced as the top industrial sector obtaining 3D printing-related patents by the consumer products/electronics field. Patents covering 3D printing hardware, methods, materials, and software have remained consistent since 2010, while patents for manufacturing sectors, such as aerospace, architectural, consumer products, industrial/business machines, and motor vehicles remained consistently high.

Comparing issued patents to published patent applications is one way to quantify change in 3D printing patent activity over time. Based on the data shown in the following table and the sharp increase in the number of patent applications beginning in 2014, a significant increase in the number of patents issued in the manufacturing and medical/dental sectors, compared to the hardware, methods, materials, and software sectors, should be seen in coming years.

Patent applications can also be categorized by technology, as shown in the following table (size of bubble shows the number of patent applications in each technology in different years). The proportion of 3D printing patent applications in Powder Bed Fusion, Material Jetting, Material Extrusion, and 3D printer components has increased since 2008, while other market segments are experiencing comparatively slower growth and thus have a decreasing proportion. Compared to 2015, the number of patent applications directed to the Vat Photopolymerization, software, materials, and general segments declined for the first time in the past 4 years. Such changes in the trend of patent applications categorized by technology will probably be reflected in the issued patents in coming years.

U.S. patents are issued in the name of the inventors, not in company names. The individual inventors usually assign their patents to their employers. The following table categorizes the applicants for 3D printing-related patents into 4 broad categories. From the data we can see that the comparative percentages among these categories has remained relatively constant over the last 7 years. Companies are obtaining far more patents than individuals, non-profits, and universities combined.

Shifting from an overview of the 3D printing industry's patent landscape to the patent holdings of some of the industry's major players, we see some expected data and a few surprises.

3D Systems
3D Systems is one of the world's largest dedicated 3D printer makers, with a market cap of $2.1 billion. It sells mostly industrial machines and is vertically integrated. Its patent portfolio can be traced back to 1986, the year of its founding, when Chuck Hull's first Vat Photopolymerization patent issued. 3D Systems built a patent portfolio of at least 378 US patents/applications, having acquired at least 166 through acquisitions. Since 2000, 3D Systems has acquired at least 54 companies.

Stratasys is another big 3D printer company (market cap $1.3 billion), participating in both the industrial and consumer segments, and is vertically integrated. It owns at least 88 US patents/applications, 29 of which are from the 2012 merger of Stratasys and Objet.

In addition to the big home-grown 3D printer makers, Stratasys and 3D Systems, companies previously in other industries are getting into 3D printing, either by developing new 3D printing technologies or applying 3D printing to their fields.

2D Printer Makers
With its market cap of $30.5 billion, HP Inc. is making a major push into 3D printing with its Multi Jet Fusion machine. HP has at least 137 US patents or published applications related to 3D printing, and says its 3D printers also leverage 30 years of 2D printing expertise.

The same may be true of Canon and Ricoh, both of which are now making 3D printers. Their 3D printing patent counts are unknown at this time, but they have decades of 2D printing expertise and patents, which can be leveraged in the 3D printing space. Toshiba also announced the introduction of a Directed Energy Deposition machine for 2017. Whether or not this machine comes to market in anyone's guess, but Toshiba owns one of the largest patent portfolios in the world.

Boeing is a multinational corporation that designs, manufactures, and sells various commercial jetliners and defense and space aircraft. Boeing currently uses at least 20,000 3D printed parts on its aircraft and owns at least 111 U.S. 3D printing-related patents, one of which is the coolest platform in the industry, combining a levitated part, multiple build heads (could be Binder Jet, Directed Energy Deposition, Material Extrusion, or Material Jet, or all of the above), and apparently infinitely variable orientations to such heads, which can build a part in true 3D (not just in the Z axis). To date, Boeing has used 3D printing internally and does not sell machines. It is unclear if Boeing licenses its 3D printing technology.

It may be no surprise that MIT and the University of Texas own a substantial number of 3D printing patents. But it may surprise some to know that IBM owns at least 92 US patents related to 3D printing. But IBM is not a visible player in the industry.

Over 50 3D printing patents are owned by Micron Technology and at least 40 3D printing patents are owned by Australia's Silverbrook Research, whose founder, Kia Silverbrook, is the most prolific inventor, ever. Neither Micron nor Silverbrook has been visible in the 3D printing industry to date, although they could be licensing their technology.

GE (market cap $231 billion) is the clear leader in 3D printer adoption and the 231 billion pound gorilla in the 3D printing room. Through recent acquisitions, GE is venturing into the manufacture and sale of 3D printers. GE owns at least 90 U.S. patents related to 3D printing methods and machines. This number does not include GE's recent acquisition of Concept Laser and Arcam.

More to the Story?
While this survey of issued patents and published applications provides a picture of the industry, it may not tell the whole story. There could be many unpublished applications. Normally, patent applications are not published for at least 18 months, and could have been filed as provisional applications, which effectively gives them an additional 12 months of secrecy. Also, in the U.S. and some other countries, an applicant can request nonpublication of a patent application as a tactic to keep innovations non-disclosed to the public while the application is pending. All of this means that there could be many more pending 3D printing applications than meet the eye.

Originally printed in on July 17, 2017.

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