30 Mar / Patents on 3D Printing
NOTE: I wrote this post on September 16th of 2013 in the website of Fablogica.
Recently several news about patenting in the field of additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing has been published. As you might know, 3D printing can be based on different techniques and each of them was patented at the time it was developed by its author. In this post we are going to list some of these techniques and their patent status in order to get a general idea about the actual patent situation in 3D printing. Also about how its expiration will happen and will affect this market, increasing the number of printers on the actual market and reducing its costs, offering new opportunities for makers, designers, tools manufacturers and service providers.
Fuse depositing modeling:
The first name that comes to mind when talking about FDM(Fuse depositing modeling) is the Reprap project. When the Reprap started there was already one company that had the patent on the FDM technique. Stratasys is a company founded in 1989, the same year that the first patent for FDM has been filled by S. Scott Crump, founder of Stratasys.
Note that the FDM technique is also referred as FFF in the Reprap community as a way to not get in trouble with a trademark from Stratasys over the FDM term (note that a trademark doesn’t expires as opposite to a patent). So here we are talking about an approximate expiration date in 2009 inside the legislation of the EEUU.
We all know what happened (or is happening): a huge number of companies manufacturing 3D printers based on FDM/FFF started to emerge such as Makerboot, Bits from Bytes, 3D systems, Ultimaker and several commercial versions of RepRaps. The prices went consecuently down from approx. $10.000 to $2.000, thus giving birth to a new market of Desktop manufacturings that resulted in the acquisition of Makerbot from Stratasys.
Stereolithography, SLA or STL:
Recently, two companies went to Kickstart offering Desktop 3D printers using a photopolymeralizable resin. One of them (the first one) was B9 Creator, which uses a similar method of SLA, involving a DLP projector that projects an image that ‘imprints’ the resin, making an object layer by layer.
The second 3D printer was the Form 1 from FormLabs. It was from this point that the patent troubles started with one of the giant 3D Systems, the company that patented the method of SLA 3D printing. In fact Formlabs got sued from 3D systems for a patent infringement. It looks like that the patent over Stereolithography will expire around 2014. Formlabs defense is that as they only are offering pre-orders in their website they cannot be sued for a product that has not yet been sold .
SLS, Selective laser sintering:
Selective laser sintering, is a technology that exist in the laboratories of prototyping for a couple of decades, in this case the object is built layer by layer, melting a powder with a laser beam. The power that is lasered gets solidified shaping the structure of the object. In this case the first patent that describes that process has been filled by Carl Deckard in 1986.
In this case we have a similar situation compared with the case of SLA, the patent will expire approximately in 2014, so we can expect the same effects, a bigger offer in the market, huge cost reduction and the expansion of the market of desktop 3D printers.
We have analyzed three of the main 3D printing technologies from a patent perspective. Please note that as there are hundreds of patents applied over each of these methods we have simplifying the situation for clarity of explanation. We have focused on the main ones that define their basic operation.
Nevertheless it looks that the patent expiring is one of the three main factors that are accelerating the development of the additive manufacturing on the Desktop manufacturing market, together with costs reduction on the electronics, mechanical and optical components that integrates these systems and the democratization of knowledge with the Internet and its communitiesv.
We can therefore expect in the coming years a huge increase in the 3D printing market and – although far away still from the ideal of distributed manufacturing as an alternative production model to the mass production – a revolution on the arts of product design and prototyping is certainly on the way.