3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is frequently, and rightly, hailed as the next revolution in technology.

Since its inception in 1986, 3D printing has transformed numerous sectors including aviation, manufacturing, and energy, and altered perceptions surrounding cost and time-efficiency in production.

However, no-where has it demonstrated its far-reaching potential for beneficial industry, and societal advancement, more clearly than in the medical and medtech sectors.

Dental implants, customised prosthetics, and hearing aids are among the life-changing artificial treatment devices which have been produced. While medical technology including in vitro diagnostics, and orthopaedic devices, have transformed the delivery of treatment.

Previously, producing a customised medical device would have proved to be too costly and inefficient to be explored on a wider scale. However, thanks to the revolutionary capabilities of 3D printing, bespoke medtech devices can now be produced at a significantly lower cost with ease.

But, with the growth of 3D printing and its capabilities within the medtech world, comes the inevitable intellectual property consideration.

Vast sums of money, time, and research are invested annually into creating life-changing medical devices, and as such, these are thoroughly protected by robust intellectual property portfolios.

However, with the ability to custom manufacture innovative products at the touch of a button, what are the IP implications for medtech manufacturers?

Here Jim Robertson, a partner and patent attorney at leading intellectual property firm Wynne Jones IP explains why IP is crucial in ensuring 3D printing is supporting the growth of medtech, and not harming it.

Mr Robertson, a specialist in protecting the medical devices, life science, and biotechnology fields, said: “IP is able to support the growth and success of 3D printing in a number of areas.

“For example when it comes to new 3D printing devices, patents can protect the inner workings of the technology, including new and improved additive manufacturing processes through to the materials used in the processes, and data acquisition.

“Critically, IP can protect the actual end-product itself – it is important to separate 3D printing as the manufacturing technology from the innovative end-product and how it is structured, functions and works and the technical problems that it solves.

“So applied and executed correctly, IP can support both the growth of 3D printing and the technology it creates.”

But where does the innovator behind a new 3D printed medical device begin when it comes to safeguarding their creation?

 “When an inventor files a patent application, they are then given the opportunity to get a granted patent, which can provide them with a monopoly over the invention for up to 20 years,” he said.

“In order to get a granted patent, an invention has to be new, and inventive. If, for example, an invention is made publicly available before a patent application has been filed, the invention will not be new and will not be patentable.”

But what about 3D printing technology’s ability to potentially, and effortlessly, infringe on existing medtech?

Mr Robertson said that in order for the medical industry to protect its interests and investments in a competitive environment such as this, they must establish a thorough intellectual property strategy, which considers technological advancements such as 3D printing.

He said: “I believe a clear business strategy needs to be established and reviewed regularly, which plans for technical innovations in the industry. Once that is in place, it can drive the IP strategy, and address any strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

“Some businesses will have a key technology that they need to protect, and obtaining granted patents covering that technology may be critical when discussing the capabilities of 3D printing. This is particularly relevant when it comes to protecting the technology behind medtech.

“Patents can also be used to prevent ‘work-arounds’ and make it difficult for other companies to compete against them. This will address any potential loopholes which may appear later in the patent’s lifecycle due to emerging technologies.”

Wynne-Jones IP is a UK firm of intellectual property specialists, with offices in Cardiff, London, Cheltenham and Telford. Trading for over fifty years, the firm advises businesses and inventors in a wide range of sectors worldwide on all aspects of IP rights, strategy and renewals.