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How Patent Term Could Lead to the Next Generation of 3D Printing

2016 is quickly becoming the hottest year for 3D printing innovation. While there is still a lot of hype surrounding 3D printing and that it could be the next industrial revolution, one thing is certain: the cost of printing will continue to fall and the quality of 3D printing will continue to improve.
This development can be traced back to the time when advanced 3D printing technologies became available due to the expiration of major patents on existing industrial printing processes.
These expiring patents, many of which were issued before the turn of the century and are approaching the end of their life cycle, are releasing monopoly control over processes that have long belonged to the pioneers of the 3D printing industry.
For example, when the Fused Deposition Printing (FDM) process patent expired in 2009, the price of an FDM printer dropped from over $10,000 to under $1,000, and a number of consumer-facing 3D printer manufacturers such as like MakerBot and Ultimaker, paving the way for the future. Available 3D printing methods.
The next generation of additive manufacturing technologies is moving from the industrial market to consumer and retailer desktops, just like FDM. These include patents for three specific 3D printing technologies: liquid, powder, and metal.
Regarded as the best desktop printing process in existence for creating high-precision, highly detailed parts, the stereolithography (SLA) printing process has recently made headlines with the launch of the Carbon M1 3D printer.
Although Carbon pioneered its own stereolithography process to make it faster, a process called continuous fluid interface manufacturing (CLIP), it originated from a patent patented by Charles (Chuck) W. Hull prior to the creation of 3D in 1986. Process Systems Inc. commercialized it.
The stereolithography process works by sequentially “printing” thin layers of an object with an ultraviolet (UV) laser focused on a bath of liquid resin. Regardless of the specific production method, almost every fluid technology we’ve seen recently has become available since Hull’s patent expired.
One of the hottest names in 3D printing, Formlabs is a pioneer in bringing SLA desktop 3D printing at an affordable price.
All was not well in this new free market, however. 3D Systems sued Formlabs for patent infringement in 2012 after the company launched a very successful Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $3 million for its Form 1 3D printer. In December 2014, Formlabs settled with 3D Systems and now pays 3D Systems an 8% royalty on every product sold.
Despite the setbacks, the company has become one of the most successful and respected desktop 3D printer manufacturers in the industry.
The Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) powder printing process was developed and subsequently patented by Dr. Carl Deckard and his supervisor Dr. Joe Beeman at the University of Texas at Austin in 1984. Like Chuck Hull, Deckard and Beeman founded a company with the goal of commercializing their new technology by manufacturing and selling SLS 3D printers.
While the SLS process is similar to stereolithography in that both use lasers to solidify materials into desired objects, it relies on powdered materials interacting with lasers rather than liquids. With each pass of the laser, the powder “sinters” or “melts” on each successive layer, creating the final shape.
3D Systems later purchased the technology from a competitor, but the patent expired in 2014. Similar to what happened shortly after the FDM and SLA 3D printing patents dried up, this has led to new 3D printer manufacturers looking to bring this costly industrial printing process to the desktops of a large number of users. So far, progress has been slower than SLA, and SLS counterparts for Formlabs printers have yet to be released.
Considered by many as the “Holy Grail” of the additive manufacturing process, or more specifically selective laser melting (SLM) and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), metal 3D printing is already being used to create custom metal parts for a myriad of manufacturing applications, from fabricated to ordering racing car parts to SpaceX parts for launches into the outer atmosphere.
While the big automakers and Elon Musk can easily afford to buy industrial machines and use them as they see fit, the cost of owning and maintaining them is beyond the reach of most others.
Interestingly, in December 2016, the basic patent for selective laser melting, owned by the German Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology, expires.
As we have seen with liquid and powder technologies, expiration is expected to lead to a new wave of manufacturers that will cut costs significantly.
While it’s too early to tell how this will affect the industry in the long term, the impact could be significant as no other 3D printing process produces consistently reliable parts that can function as well as metal 3D printing.
With sales of consumer 3D printers growing year on year (about 200,000 printers were sold in 2015 alone for no more than $5,000), and the industry itself is expected to grow from about $4.1 billion in 2015 to $16.2 billion. billion dollars in the future in four years; that desktop 3D printing is moving beyond the hype as monopolies crumble and prices fall. Needless to say, the dream of industrial quality desktop printing is still alive.

Post time: Dec-17-2022