Although additive manufacturing (also known as ‘3D printing’) already exists for more than 30 years most people only learned about this technology in the last couple of years. The catalyst for this awaking was the introduction of affordable consumer 3D printers into the general market. Just like computers in the eighties, the 3D printer became personal.
So why did it take so long for this technology to enter our homes?
The main reason for this was US patent 5121329 describing the basics of Fuse Deposit Modelling (FDM).
The simplicity of the workings behind this technology made it the best candidate for an affordable consumer 3D printer. The technology has been commercially available since the 90s. The problem was however that Stratasys, the owner of this patent, was only active in the professional market. This meant that until recently there was just no way to acquire an affordable 3D printer.
A bit of history
In 2005 Dr. Adrian Bowyer from the University of Bath started developing an affordable open source FDM 3D printer called the ‘RepRap’. As this was a research project with no commercial intensions, the Stratasys’ patent was not an issue. By 2007 small companies started producing parts & kits to help people create their own RepRap 3D printer. Commercialising these kits was actually an infringement on Stratasys’ patent but Stratasys did not stop this from happening.
Everything changed by the end of 2009, the expiration date of the famous Stratasys’ patent after 20 years. Now it became possible for a company to produce and sell a simple FDM printer without infringement of Stratasys’ intellectual property. A real revolution was born. Before 2009, the cheapest home-assembled 3D printer you could buy was in the range of €15.000. Since then, prices have dropped drastically. Every week a new sub € 2000 machine is launched, prices even go as low as €200.
Recently some people started predicting a second 3D printing revolution, for a very similar reason. The reason is the recent expiration of US patent 5597589. This patent, owned by 3D Systems, describes the technology of Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). SLS is a powder based printing technique, where a powerful laser is used to locally sinter powder into a solid part. A 3D model is created by sequentially depositing a layer of powder followed by a laser pattern to sinter an image onto that layer. This process is repeated until the whole build chamber is full of leftover powder and sintered parts.
The main advantage of the SLS technology is that it can print objects without any support structure. In most 3D printing techniques the newest printed layer needs to be supported by the previous layer. If there is nothing underneath it, the new layer will simply collapse. Compare it to building brick houses, where every new brick needs to be at least partly supported by the one underneath it. You can’t just place a brick in thin air, right? The cool thing with powder based printing is that the whole printing volume is filled with powder so there is always full support underneath every layer you print. As a result an SLS system can print virtually any shape imaginable. A feature that is not easily obtained by other additive manufacturing technologies, let alone other manufacturing technologies in general.
Additionally, SLS machines have a high throughput and process reliability. When used at maximum efficiency (a build chamber full of prints) the technology is one of the most economical additive manufacturing options available today. That makes SLS competitive to many other production technologies.
This all sounds great, so why would the liberation of this technology not lead to the next 3D printing revolution?
There might be one catch: When a print is finished you are left with the complete printing volume filled with powder and printed parts. Recovering the parts from the powder is a messy & labour intensive process, now mostly done by complex automated cleaning systems. For a consumer printer, it would be too risky to let an untrained user handle the powder but also too costly to add a fully automated cleaning system.
Product in powder image?
So, ironically, the powder technology which makes these machines so powerful, is also the barrier to their further development. The logistics surrounding the powder are currently just too complicated to compensate for their potential advantages for home use.
For now it seems that home users are stuck with the current FMD technology. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Due to strong public interest in this technology, advancements are happening rapidly. New materials are developed, printers are getting more reliable and their set up is getting easier. Both speed and resolution are constantly improved and even full colour 3D printers are in the pipeline.
If you would ask us what will be the next 3D printing revolution our answer would be inkjet technology (refer to other report). In case you’re wondering, this is indeed the same technology currently driving your cheap 2D printers at home. However in 3D printers, instead of ink curable resins are used in the inkjet cartridges. The technology is clean, fast, user-friendly and very versatile. The only issue is that both the resins and print heads currently used at industrial scale are way too expensive for consumer applications. But, give this tech a few years to ripen, and then the next 3D printing revolution can take off.
The modern patent system was created to help stimulate innovation. A patent gives its owner the right to stop others from using his invention for a limited period of time, thus providing him the opportunity to benefit from his R&D investments. This security should convince individuals and organisations to investments in R&D and therefore stimulate innovation.
US patent 5121329 indeed aided its owner to benefit from his invention. It undoubtedly helped Stratasys to become what it is today, a major player in the additive manufacturing industry with an important role in kick-starting this whole new industry. On the other hand one could argue that by holding the right over this key patent, Stratasys hampered the next step in additive manufacturing, making the 3D printer personal.
We don’t know why Stratasys decided to solely cater to the profession market for so long. We can only assume that if they had ventured in the personal market sooner or allowed others to do so instead we would be further ahead regarding additive manufacturing technologies.
So the question remains, do patents stimulate or slow down innovation?
Want to know more about the influence of IP on technology development, contact us at creax.com