If you hear the name Nikon, your first thought is probably photography. The company, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, is well known for its cameras, though it does make other things such as microscopes, binoculars and even metrology and lithography equipment. But Nikon, like so many other long-lived companies before it, is branching out, or at least taking steps to do so. The company filed a patent for a 3D printer – and it sounds pretty cool.
The recently published patent is for “an apparatus for manufacturing a three dimensional shaped object,” and it includes a unique feature – it fixes its own mistakes. An “inspecting unit” would examine each layer of the print for holes or rough surfaces, and would then take action to fill in the holes or to make sure the next layer adhered to the rough surface. This self-correcting mechanism would take care of some of the most common flaws in metal powder-based prints to deliver better quality overall.
The patent was first filed in 2015, and just published recently, so Nikon has clearly been thinking about 3D printing for quite some time. Although that information is new to the public, it’s not surprising, considering how many other manufacturers of more traditional products such as cameras, computers and 2D printers have been either entering the 3D printing market or filing patent applications for 3D printing equipment. Apple has become notorious for filing 3D printing patents, some of which are practical and some rather outlandish, and none of which may ever turn into physical products – though they may. Likewise, it’s impossible to know if anything will ever come of Nikon’s patent application.
The shape of the 3D printing patent landscape has been changing over the last few years, with a noticeable surge following certain patent expirations in 2014. The rise in applications since can be seen in companies from Disney to Airbus. While much of what we’ve heard about Nikon and 3D technologies has focused on metrology, the company has demonstrably been interested in and using 3D printing as well.
Manufacturers of cameras and photography equipment have been turning to 3D printing for good reason. These companies took a hit when film was all but wiped out by digital photography, and then another hit when even digital cameras were largely overtaken by the cameras on phones and tablets. Companies such as Kodak and Polaroid needed to find another business line quickly, and why not 3D printing? Kodak has developed a full 3D printing ecosystem along with its Portrait 3D printer, and Polaroid recently introduced a full range of 3D printers after first entering the market in 2016.
When it comes to manufacturers of traditional office equipment entering the 3D printing market, the most famous is probably HP. The office equipment manufacturer didn’t just enter the 3D printing industry, it transformed it, offering the Multi Jet Fusion system as a faster and higher-quality alternative to other 3D printers as well as introducing a new open, collaborative business model as the company ultimately targets disruption of the entire manufacturing sector.
Nikon has the potential to change the 3D printing industry as well, if its proposal for a 3D printer becomes a reality. Porosity is one of the biggest problems in powder-based 3D printing, and a printer that can repair that issue as well as other surface imperfections would be a big thing. There are plenty of 3D printing companies out there that have been around in the industry for a long time – they started as 3D printer manufacturers, and they continue to churn out quality products. But sometimes it’s the newcomers that are truly innovative, that come into the industry after their own products start to become obsolete and offer entirely new ideas.
Will Nikon’s 3D printer proposal become a reality? We’ll have to wait and see, but if it does, it could certainly be interesting. You can read the full patent application here.
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