Recent advances in additive manufacturing (AM) technology, combined with the industry’s drive to reduce costs, has encouraged its use in a wide range of applications. Once primarily used for rapid prototyping, it is increasingly used to make added value products for high-value industrial applications. Businesses with access to 3D-printing systems are able to get their products to market more quickly, while improving process efficiency and enabling shorter production runs of customised products.
AM is gaining ground in the construction sector, where it is can produce large structures, such as buildings and bridges. In addition to its well-known efficiency benefits, using 3D-printing systems to build large structures onsite can help to improve safety by removing the need for scaffolding and working at height. The production process itself can also usually be completed more quickly, with minimal waste.
There have been many recent attempts to demonstrate the capabilities of 3D-printing technology in the housing and construction sector. In 2017, for example, Apis Cor built a 38m2 single-storey house in Russia where the entire envelope of the building was printed onsite using concrete, in the space of just 24 hours. In another example, Wasp, an Italian 3D-printing business, has been developing technology capable of extruding straw and earth in order to print structures made from locally-sourced materials.
The ability to build structures with complex, previously impossible shapes is another driving factor behind the growing significance of AM. Designers can create novel structural features, which would not have been practical or feasible previously, during the design manufacturing stage. Dutch company MX3D recently used AM techniques to produce a unique 12m steel pedestrian bridge, which will be installed in Amsterdam later this year.
As businesses build optimal structures that weren’t previously possible, they might be able to obtain patent protection for them – in addition to intellectual property (IP) being generated in relation to new 3D-printing equipment, it is equally important for businesses to protect any IP generated by using it.
With the technology becoming more useful, IP protection will have an increasingly important function in enabling businesses to commercialise their R&D investment. However, it is important for businesses to be aware that exploiting the advantages of AM creates challenges when it comes to deciding how best to protect IP.
Construction businesses are well-placed to take advantage of the benefits of AM, as much of the information necessary to print an item already exists in a digital format, due to the widespread use of CAD software. The information stored on these CAD files can readily be shared on file-sharing platforms, and then reprinted onsite by anyone with access to a suitable 3D printer.
We predict that without preventative action, designers of 3D-printed structures may encounter problems regarding illegal file sharing of their CAD designs, in a similar way to the music industry in the early 2000s. In order to mitigate this, designers should be aware that patent protection for their novel structures could cover the electronic 3D printing design file.
It is important to be aware that in addition to the IP generated in creating a new design, IP may also be generated in the creation of new materials produced to enable AM, or in the creation of new processing methods. For example, CLS Architects recently produced a 3D-printed house including a living area, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom in under 48 hours. In order to achieve this, they needed to utilise a new quick-drying cement, which was able to set within 24 hours, rather than the traditional period of several weeks.
In order to maintain a commercial advantage over their competitors, innovators using AM techniques should seek to protect their IP. Businesses should also be aware that any products they produce now could be made in the future – over the 20-year lifetime of a patent – using AM. With the potential advantages it can bring businesses should consider the effects of 3D printing on their IP, even if they have not yet begun to use the techniques.
Mark Sugden is a patent attorney in the advanced engineering group at European intellectual property firm Withers & Rogers. He advises businesses how to protect their intellectual property and has specialist knowledge of the housing and construction sector.
Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.