3D printing is a 30 year old technology which is currently entering the mainstream with great fanfare. Despite the 3D printing industry’s double-digit (%) growth over the past year, 3D printer use has yet to return to normal. The question is, is something stopping him?
The conventional wisdom is that intellectual property drives innovation by creating competition, which fuels advances in technology by requiring IP workarounds. Our Founding Fathers in America were so committed to this idea that they built IP protection into the Constitution. Today, any large company will tell you that a limited monopoly of patents or copyrights gives them a head start and ultimately fosters innovation and competition.
Recently, some innovators have challenged conventional wisdom, arguing that IP inhibits innovation. Applying this thinking to 3D printing, they argue that patents have inhibited innovation in 3D printing technology and thus because companies fear being sued, they do not spend resources on research and development of the technology. . This reduces competition, which keeps prices high and creates barriers to keep new entrants and affordable products out of the market.
Others argue that the only technology holding 3D printing back is that printers are either too slow, too cumbersome or unable to print the objects people really want, partly because of limitations in materials. No matter who stands in this debate, the threat of a lawsuit is certainly real and the 3D printing patent wars, such as the smart phone war, probably aren’t too far down the pike.
For example, Formlabs, Inc. raised millions for its Form 1 3D printer via crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. According to Formlabs, there were no low-cost 3D printers meeting the quality standards of a professional designer, so “[a] after a great deal of research, engineering, and experimentation, [they] figured out how to do it.” It’s very, very low cost, to make this premium technology available to everyone.”
In November 2012, 3D Systems sued Formlabs and Kickstarter in District Court in South Carolina, alleging that the Form 1 printer infringed US Patent Number 5,597,520 (‘520 Patent) of Smalley et al. Title “Simultaneous Layer Cure in Stereolithography.” 3D Systems alleged that the two companies infringed on at least Claims 1 and 23 of the ‘520 patent. Claim 1 reads:
1. An improved method for creating a three-dimensional object by creating cross-sectional layers of said object from a material capable of physical transformation upon exposure to synergistic excitation involving the steps to obtain data descriptive data of said cross-sectional layers.
Cross-sectional layers by exposing the said data descriptively to the said material to form a three-dimensional object layer-by-layer according to the said data for the said synergistic stimulus, the steps for improvement include: Modifying the data descriptive of a part of at least one cross-sectional layer by copying the said data from the first cross-section to the second; and use the above modified data to create the said three-dimensional object.
The only substantial difference between claims 1 and 23 is that the data in claim 23 is modified by “transfer” rather than “copy” as in claim 1. The ‘520 patent expires on January 28, 2014, and after negotiations with Formlabs, the case was voluntarily dismissed on November 8, 2013.
The same day, 3D Systems sued Formlabs in District Court in New York, this time alleging that the Form 1 printer infringed eight more patents. These cases explain why many believe that the expiration of a patent will open the door to advances in technology: inventions with expired patents are freely available for use by all, allowing new investments. innovation and competition.
Several observers have pointed out that some of the early 3D printing patents have already expired. For example, US Patent Number 4,575,330 from 3D Systems’ Chuck Hull titled “Apparatus for the Production of Three-Dimensional Objects by Stereolithography”, which was dubbed by some as the “Native American Stereolithography Patent”, has been around for almost a decade. had expired earlier.
Other early stereolithography patents also expired several years ago, including: US Patent No. 4,929,402 from Hull, US Patent No. 4,999,143 from Hull et al., and US Patent No. 5,174,931 from Almquist et al. This was the expiration of some fused deposition modeling patents, such as the one for Scott Crump of Stratasys in the U.S. Patent No. 5,121,329, which apparently created a spurt of growth in the consumer-level 3D printing industry.
Before the initial FDM patent expired, these printers cost thousands of dollars. A few years after its termination, FDM machines cost hundreds of dollars and the open-source community adopted the technology.