3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing – depositing material under computer control) has revolutionised how certain products are made. It is seen by many as an important disruptive technology, enabling the flexible design and production of complex parts, on-demand and with less waste.
The technology gained attention in the early 1980s, and one of the first notable patent applications for this technology was filed in 1984 by Charles Hull, which related to a process called stereolithography involving directing a beam of ultraviolet radiation into liquid photopolymer, causing it to solidify into plastic, the trace of the beam creating successive layers of an object. Its potential was seen by many and the 1990s saw further innovation. In 1994, Scott Crump of StrataSys Inc. filed a patent application for a fused depositing modelling (FDM) process which is the process that most will be familiar with – extruding heated thermoplastic through a print head nozzle to build up layers. The late 1990s also saw interest in 3D bioprinting, particularly the fabrication of biological matter, with the potential to replicate functioning tissue and organs.
By the end of the 1990s, the annual number of worldwide patent filings was modest, but maintaining growth. That figure started increasing rapidly after the year 2000, perhaps triggered by the availability of lower-cost printers. To date, according to one dataset, well over 30,000 patent applications had been published worldwide that involved some involvement with 3D printing.
Recent filings relate to areas such as the use of sustainable materials, medical uses, and even printing food and buildings.
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