Ex­pired patents will un­leash cre­ativ­ity

DEMM Engineering & Manufacturing - - 3D TECHNOLOGY - By Chris Sut­cliffe

News that a man in Wales, UK, was able to have his face re­con­structed af­ter a se­ri­ous mo­tor­bike ac­ci­dent has brought the won­der of 3D print­ing to the main­stream.

It's the re­sult of changes in reg­u­la­tion and im­prove­ments in the tech­nol­ogy, and is the start of some­thing much, much big­ger.

The use of a com­bi­na­tion of CT scan­ning and 3D print­ing meth­ods to treat pa­tients who are suf­fer­ing from in­jury or de­fect is in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful. As has hap­pened in Stephen Power's case, it al­lows ex­pert surgeons to ma­nip­u­late the pre­cise ge­om­e­try of the pa­tient's face or other part of the body be­fore the oper­a­tion.

That means the nec­es­sary parts can be de­signed and man­u­fac­tured in a nor­mal, al­beit slightly com­pressed, de­sign timescale.

Power suf­fered a num­ber of im­pact in­juries in his ac­ci­dent. He broke his cheek­bones, top jaw and nose, and frac­tured his skull. Sev­eral months later, doc­tors printed a sym­met­ri­cal model of his face us­ing CT scans and were then able to cre­ate im­plants and plates to rebuild his fea­tures.

But the ma­jor­ity of the tech­niques used to help Power have ac­tu­ally been around for decades. A very sim­i­lar story to this was de­tailed in a BBC doc­u­men­tary nearly 20 years ago.

The fun­da­men­tal patents that have been held for 20 years – in­clud­ing a par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant piece of in­tel­lec­tual property owned by 3D print­ing com­pany Strata­sys – have now ex­pired. That means that we are likely to see 3D print­ing re­ally come into its own. These patents largely cov­ered the man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cesses in­volved in 3D print­ing and now that this knowl­edge is no longer locked up by com­pa­nies, people like Power can ben­e­fit more eas­ily.

It has meant that low-cost 3D print­ing ma­chines can be pro­duced, en­abling a bet­ter-served mar­ket­place to emerge and a com­mu­nity of print-at-home en­thu­si­asts, de­sign­ers and in­no­va­tors to get to work. They are print­ing toys, jew­ellery and even pros­thet­ics.

But the hold up has also been about tech­nol­ogy. In­no­va­tion in the field, and par­tic­u­larly in metal 3D print­ing, has re­ally sped up in re­cent years.

Metal 3D print­ing pro­duces com­po­nents in bio­com­pat­i­ble ma­te­ri­als such as ti­ta­nium from 3D data pro­duced by a de­sign sys­tem or CT scan. In the past five years these ma­chines have im­proved to such an ex­tent that they can now be used to make im­plantable parts.

The Univer­sity of Liver­pool built the first metal 3D printer in the UK, which has led to the pro­duc­tion of im­plants for den­tistry, or­thopaedics and even vet­eri­nary treat­ment. And now the progress of 3D print­ing tech­nol­ogy is gath­er­ing pace and this is largely due to more people be­ing able to ac­cess and ex­per­i­ment with the de­vices in a va­ri­ety of set­tings.

We're likely to see a lot more sto­ries like Power's fa­cial re­con­struc­tion in the fu­ture. For ev­ery won­der ap­pli­ca­tion that suc­ceeds there are likely to be more failed ideas that never catch on but now that people all over the world can try things out, the pos­si­bil­i­ties are enor­mous. It will mean that 3D print­ing will be an ev­ery day oc­cur­rence and a nor­mal way to treat pa­tients rather than front-page news.


Chris Sut­cliffe re­ceives fund­ing from EPSRC, TSB,

In­dus­trial spon­sor­ship. He works for Univer­sity of Liver­pool, Ren­ishaw AMPD and owns shares in Fu­sion

Im­plants. This fea­ture first ap­peared on


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