How additive manufacture is building innovation and investment in automotive

Michael Robinson

How additive manufacture is building innovation and investment in automotive

As additive manufacturing (AM) technology continues to mature, its technical and environmental benefits are increasingly pervading the automotive sector — making vehicles lighter and faster while driving innovation and investment. Here, we explore how automakers are using AM and the best routes to secure IP protection for additively manufactured inventions.

How is additive manufacture applied in the automotive sector?

Despite being among the first to use AM, the automotive industry subsequently fell behind others in widespread use because of the complexity associated with scaling production of specialist parts. This is starting to change as the technology matures, with manufacturers realising AM’s time saving and waste-reducing potential, and with drivers appreciating the ability to completely customise components.

Today, BMW produces 300,000 parts annually using AM processes, with the value of the automotive AM market set to exceed $13.5bn by 2031.

AM can be used to produce both structural and non-structural elements. Structural applications could involve the use of a latticed or cellular structure to achieve weight reductions, manage thermal load or attenuate impacts. Non-structural applications are equally broad and can range from customising components according to user preference to functional applications such as the production of electronic components.

How can additively manufactured inventions be protected?

Protecting inventions that exploit AM can be simpler than you might think. While it’s possible to specify the method of manufacture within a patent application, broader protection can be attained by protecting the features of a product, which will usually be distinct from a conventionally manufactured product due to the freedom of design afforded by AM.

This can be seen in some of the patent protection granted to the Michelin® Uptis airless tyre, which has been subject to a broad range of IP protection including more than 50 patents. Patent WO2017039604A1 provides protection for the surrounding technical features of the tyre without being limited to the method of manufacture.

Similarly, General Motors (GM) is investing heavily into AM, with its luxury CELESTIQ line of electric vehicles being produced from over 100 AM components — including structural and cosmetic components — to which the use of AM would have been limited in the not-too-distant past. While identification of the additively manufactured parts in question will likely require an enthusiastic owner to start tinkering with their new vehicle, we can hazard a guess based on GM’s patent portfolio. For example, US10343725B2 explores the use of a lattice structure within a structural component, which could realistically only be produced by additive manufacture (as highlighted by a dependant claim within that patent).

Our tips — enhance protection with designs and trade marks

The use of AM provides a design freedom that not only enables new technical features and material properties, but also innovative shapes and forms that were previously unachievable with conventional manufacturing techniques.

The distinct visual appearance of a new product manufactured by AM can have significant commercial benefits and your IP strategy can be adapted by registering designs to provide enhanced IP protection that captures this value. Although the design may be facilitated by AM, a design registration provides protection for your creation regardless of how it’s manufactured.

Registered designs can act as a standalone form of protection to provide a real and effective deterrent to copying — even if the technical features of the product weren’t suitable for patent protection. Registered designs may also be combined with patents to enhance your IP portfolio, with the former providing immediately available protection that can be enforced while a patent application remains pending.

In a similar vein, registering trade marks to protect the brand name of your new products can provide an additional layer of protection, as the brand name becomes associated with your innovative designs. Trade marks provide longer lasting protection than registered designs or patents, and in some cases the distinctive shape of a product can be protected as a trade mark.

Additive manufacturing is the future

Additive manufacturing still has teething problems. It struggles with scalability and isn’t currently as economical as conventional manufacturing processes. However, considering the associated reduction in waste, benefits inherent to digital manufacturing and ability to customise products ‘on-the-fly’ to user specifications, additive manufacture will surely have an important role in the future.

AM’s ability to produce vehicles at smaller sites has inherent logistical benefits. Returning to the CELESTIQ example, GM is producing its new luxury vehicle on a site that previously focused on design work — making the CELESTIQ the first production vehicle to be built there. GM is also the proprietor of patent US10022912B2, which describes the additive manufacturing of a unibody vehicle.

Innovation like this raises a key question — how long until we see a vehicle assembled from components that are mostly additively manufactured? With multi-material additive manufacture processes still in their infancy but making leaps towards commercially viable solutions, a vehicle additively manufactured from the ground up could be closer than you might think — and the protection of innovation in this space will be of significant advantage.

For specialist advice relating to protecting your additively manufactured inventions, reach out to me at michael.robinson@murgitroyd.com for a free initial chat about your IP.


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