Patent protection in three dimensions

The manufacture of products by 3D printing, commonly referred to as additive manufacturing, has long since reached series maturity. In the meantime, not only simple plastic parts are built up layer by layer using the 3D printing process, but in particular complex components such as turbine blades or medical prostheses. Even jewellery made of precious metals can be produced using additive methods. New materials and improved ideas for handling the process offer scope for a wide range of innovations that are worth protecting.

Essentially, there are three dimensions of 3D printing that need to be considered for the right IP strategy.

Protection for the product

The product manufactured with the 3D printing process can enjoy patent protection. Additive manufacturing makes it possible, for example, to produce load-optimised lightweight components. These differ from previously known components and thus fulfil the criteria for an innovation to be protected under patent law.

Protection for the manufacturing process

The technology of additive manufacturing is constantly being further developed. In particular, the focus is on the process technology, because so far the production of 3D printed components is still comparatively slow and expensive. Series production is only worthwhile for small quantities and highly complex components that cannot be manufactured in any other way.

The individual steps of a novel 3D printing process could be protected by a patent. A special feature of patent protection for manufacturing processes is that the component produced with this process also enjoys independent protection. It is therefore not possible to circumvent patent protection for the manufacturing process by transferring the production of the component made with the patented process abroad, but then selling the component in Germany.

Protection for the artwork

A prerequisite for additive manufacturing is a print template in the form of a virtual model of the component to be printed. These artworks can be quickly distributed digitally and thus be used many times at different locations for the production of components. The question therefore arises as to whether these print templates can be protected as patents in their own right. So far, there is no relevant case law on this, but the trend in the future could be to grant independent patent protection to artwork. Holders of a patent for a print template could then take action against the distribution of the associated CAD file itself.

In any case, all three cases must be taken into account when drafting the 3D printing patent application. As in the case of 3D printing, a good IP strategy that takes into account other legal instruments (e.g. design law, trade mark law, know-how and secrecy protection) in addition to a technically adeptly drafted patent application consists of many layers that build on each other. Our specialised patent attorneys will be happy to coordinate such an additive IP strategy with you, keeping your economic goals in mind.

By the way: The frequently asked question - "3D printing - why a patent? Isn't a utility model enough?" is quickly answered. Because especially in additive manufacturing, protection for the manufacturing process is also relevant, patent law is the means of choice, because processes cannot be placed under protection with a utility model. That is reserved for the patent.

Manuel Soria Parra

Patent Attorney, Master of Laws (LL.M.), Dipl.-Ing. (FH)


Florian Meyer

Patent Attorney, Dipl.-Ing. (computer science and engineering)