Ed Round discusses what the patent landscape reveals about the future of manufacturing
BIG data, artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are transforming the landscape for consumers. From smart electricity meters to smart (grocery-ordering) fridges, our world is becoming more technology-driven, more automated and more connected. Recent patent filing data released by the European Patent Office (EPO) reveals that this trend will only accelerate, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution1 transforms the global economy, and digital and tech-driven innovations grow in dominance.
Marks & Clerk’s own research into AI filings trends2 and additive manufacturing3 (or 3D printing) patents reveals a similar picture, with both technologies in particular promising to disrupt traditional manufacturing industries and production lines, from medical supplies to prefabricated cars.
Analysing patent filing data in this way enables us to gain valuable insights into key areas of innovation and what they mean for the future of manufacturing. By examining not only what is being filed, but also by which entity or industry, manufacturing companies can adjust their own research and development (R&D), and intellectual property (IP) protection and licensing strategies in response.
The contribution of technology to manufacturing has already made its mark on most modern production lines. Sophisticated use of digitalisation is becoming prevalent in industries that, until recently, relied on the oversight of skilled operators. Whether determining how processes should be controlled or ensuring continuity in a production line, robot-based automation is increasingly reducing the need for human intervention. New technologies such as machine learning and AI are taking this one step further, enabling not only the control of existing processes, but the ability to design new ones.
robot-based automation is increasingly reducing the need for human intervention. New technologies such as machine learning and AI are taking this one step further, enabling not only the control of existing processes, but the ability to design new ones
The ability of machines to communicate with each other, a key principle of the IoT, can free up operators and can enable machines to adapt to each other – so, for instance, if a particular line is running slow, then another line can compensate automatically. Machines can also report their own faults, run diagnostics and even order spare parts. There are benefits in terms of speed and productivity too, as wirelesscommunications help to overcome physical or noise barriers that may once have slowed down production, and enable machines in different locations to communicate with each other in real time.
Many established machine producers are already adapting to the potential of this new production machinery. However, there are also opportunities for suppliers to enter the market to retrofit sensing, control and communications technology to existing lines. There will also be opportunities for further innovation in the particular way that specific machines interact with each other, as well as to harness the full potential of additive manufacturing for this sector.
Our research reveals that 3D printing’s potential to allow for distributed manufacture, as well as to enable production to be scaled up quickly to meet demand (and remotely at this time of Covid-19), will open up a world of new opportunities for manufacturers. Of course, it also brings its own challenges, in terms of both quality and IP protection – and enforcement.
Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.