The future of manufacturing may lie with companies like Italy’s Isinnova, which saw a need for respirator valves in its coronavirus-stricken area and was able make hundreds in two days using 3D printing rather than waiting a week for ones made in Chinese factories.
It’s an example of how the U.S. and Europe are leading in innovation in additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, according to a new study by the European Patent Office. While relatively few patents are issued each year, it’s the fastest-growing technology field, with companies like General Electric, Raytheon and Siemens getting the most patents.
“Most of them are industrial actors that are considering this technology to change their approach to manufacturing,” said EPO’s Chief Economist Yann Ménière. “It has a very high versatility — it’s very flexible and scalable.”
The technology uses digital files to create products in layers and started as a way to design prototypes. It’s quickly evolving into a way to build medical devices, car parts, shoes and even elaborate cakes and Hershey chocolate.
Patents, which give their owners the exclusive right to use an invention, can be a barometer — albeit not a perfect one — to show where companies and individuals are focusing their research efforts. It also can help identify which companies and regions are likely to profit from emerging technologies.
The European agency’s study showed that the bulk of the patenting is by established multinationals such as GE, aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus, medical device companies Johnson & Johnson and Zimmer Biomet Holdings, and consumer goods makers Nike and Procter & Gamble.
Still, 20% of new 3D-related European patents are going to small companies and an additional 10% to universities. Among research institutes, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California were top recipients.
“The surge in additive manufacturing is part of the broader, rapid rise of digital technologies overall,” said António Campinos, president of the agency, which held an online conference on 3D this past week.
Isinnova, a 14-person company that makes prototypes, was brought into the battle against coronavirus in March when a local hospital asked it to make replacement valves for respirators, said the company’s chief executive, Cristian Fracassi.
The 14-employee company was able to make 100 valves in a day, and then designed one — named the Charlotte Valve for Fracassi’s wife — that could transform a common snorkeling mask into lifesaving respirators. Isinnova has since sent Charlotte Valve specifications around the world, where it’s been used 150,000 times, and started a fundraiser so poorer hospitals in Mozambique and Burkina Faso could buy the printers.
“Of course when you need a lot of pieces, having them made in China can be cheaper,” Fracassi said. “When you need a few pieces and the most important thing is time, a 3D printer shortens delivery time.”
And it’s not just respirators — 3D printers have been used throughout the world to make protective gear like masks for hospital workers.
“We were already seeing this rapid rise of 3D printing and all of a sudden during COVID, 3D was able to step in where traditional manufacturing couldn’t keep up,” said Chris Higgins, a patent lawyer with Orrick in Washington, who co-chairs the firm’s 3D printing practice.
Chinese companies and inventors, which are aggressively patenting innovations in the fields of telecommunications and computers, accounted for less than 1% of 3D patents, the study showed.
Bloomberg’s Ryan Beene contributed to this report.