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The incredible capabilities of 3D printing – showcased in a dozen patents

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From ground-breaking technology that could be straight off Star Trek, to applications that might transform our every-day consumer experience, via a few light-hearted detours: here are a dozen patents to illustrate the diversity of 3D printing applications…

1.         3D printing in space

US20170066783 – Made in Space

The final frontier is a perfect show case for the power of 3D printing. Need a spare part or tool for the International Space Station? No need to wait for one to arrive from earth – just print it in situ! In fact, why not make a whole space craft out there? US20170036783 from Made in Space seeks to protect a 3D printing method that will allow you to print an object that is larger than the printer itself.

2 and 3.         Custom Confectionery

US2020184530 – Decopac
EP2727469 – Xerox

Got a craving for a bespoke sweet-treat? 3D printing is a natural evolution of traditional confectionary techniques (think chocolate and icing piping, and 3D sugar work…). 3D printing allows intricate shapes, like this excellent cat cake-pop, tucked away in US2020184530A1 from Decopac. But 3D printing of confectionary isn’t just about amusing shapes – Xerox takes it to a new level in EP2727469 where it can control the precise crystal structure of chocolate with 3D printing, to give that melt-in-the-mouth feel. (Side project – the materials science of chocolate is more fascinating than you might think: read more here!).

4 to 6.         Artificial body parts

CN105105872 – Harbin Institute of Technology
US2018105781 – 3D Global Biotech

There are so many patents to choose from here: bespoke implants a-plenty, like this skull replacement apparatus from CN105105872 (it’s a pretty happy skull given the size of the hole…), or a portable false tooth printer in CN209611367U, in case you need to replace a false tooth on-the-go. US2018105781 from 3D Global Biotech is our pick for artificial skin, where dermis and epidermis layers are 3D printed, and progenitor cells are implanted for sweat glands and hair follicles. Pretty cool!

7 and 8.        3D Printing meets Levitation

US2016031156 – Boeing
US2018036168 – IBM

Domestic-style 3D printing equipment builds up an object on a support platform. It’s an easy way to create objects, but the platform does give some limitations – or require some extra finishing steps. Boeing has a way round that in US2016031156 – just levitate the object during printing! And in US2018/036168, IBM has an alternative solution: project a levitated acoustic hologram using soundwaves, and print onto the hologram.

9 to 12.         Wear your 3D printing with pride

US9005710 – Nike
WO2017044093 – Ekso Bionics

Fashion is big business, and an industry where ‘bespoke’ is already synonymous with ‘premium’. As 3D printing technology adapts to new (and even mixed) materials, we might see more in the ‘wearable’ sector. We already have custom 3D printed footwear from Nike in US9005710B2 (and on that theme we couldn’t pass over KR20180047030 – bespoke 3D printed dog shoes when you need perfect puppy-paw pumps!). For a tech-angle there’s 3D printed batteries for integration into wearables from the University of Cork in WO2019/012012. And a special bonus mention also goes to this 3D printed human exoskeleton (which looks ever-so-slightly like a custom Iron-man suit) from Ekso Bionics in WO2017044093A1.

Emily Weal, with contributions from Keltie’s Advanced Manufacturing team

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