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20 NEWS FEATURE


AS THE USE OF 3D PRINTING IN CONSTRUCTION CONTINUES TO EXPAND, IT IS BECOMING A MORE VIABLE PROPOSITION FOR MAINSTREAM HOUSING DEVELOPMENTS


become the modern construction method of choice. Apis Cor is currently one of only a handful of firms, alongside organisations such as Facit Homes in London and the French company, Nantes Métropole Habitat, to have constructed homes onsite using 3D-printing technology, although human labour has also had a critical role in these projects.


Despite progress being made, there is still a need to demonstrate that the technol- ogy can be used in a way that balances cost, time and quality. Modern 3D printers tend to be much bigger than earlier versions and can produce a wider range of bespoke parts insitu, but timing and cost is still an issue compared to some other technologies, such as laser centring for example.


The 3D-printed homes built to date are also relatively basic structures; more bespoke designs may still be out of reach without costs and construction time rising exponentially. There is also the issue of planning permission, which can be difficult to obtain when applying innovative processing methods.


While barriers to the take up of 3D- printing technology remain, progress is being made. In fact, the more innovation that is done in the field, the more likely it is that further breakthroughs can be achieved. One of the most vital things for entrepreneurs to consider when innovating in fields such as this is the potential for securing intellectual property rights. As long as an invention or service is backed by a novel technical effect, then obtaining patent protection could be a way to secure exclusivity, tax relief and other associated benefits.


A search for patent families related to 3D printing in construction has revealed there are currently only 258 worldwide, compared to about 10,000 in other techno- logical sectors. This indicates that the


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application of 3D printing in the construc- tion industry is still very early stage. Apis Cor’s first patent application (WO2017/209786) for a 3D-printing technology was published on 7 December 2017. The patent application relates to the printer itself and the crane system which it operates on. Clearly, the relatively low number of existing patents related to the use of 3D- printing technology in the construction sector means there is an opportunity for innovators. New developments in 3D- printing machinery for construction purposes can, of course, be protected by patents. However, it is equally important for designers who use commercially-avail- able machinery to form new architecture to protect their intellectual property and monitor the sharing of CAD files, which are typically used to store design information in a format that can be easily copied. The nature of 3D-printed structures means


designs can also be scanned and copied by a visitor to the building site. Once stored onto a CAD file, they can then be shared widely via a popular file-sharing platform, such as Thingiverse, and reprinted by anyone with access to a suitable 3D printer. To guard against this, design innovators should consider filing for registered design rights, which protect the appearance of their creation.


As the use of 3D printing in construction continues to expand, it is becoming a more viable proposition for mainstream housing developments. Consequently, intellectual property protection will have an important role to play in helping companies to commercialise their R&D investment in this emerging market. Businesses that want to capitalise on this opportunity should seek advice at an early stage to optimise profits and re-investment opportunities while helping to modernise and transform the construction industry.


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