3D printers have had some bad news recently. Stock market analysts think that the whole industry is over-hyped and now Wired has uncovered some patents that may stop future desktop 3D printers from producing professional results.
Current desktop 3D printers, such as FormLabs, MakerBot and RepRap, use technology that is covered by expired patents. Features like a moving print head and the basic principle of melting plastic filament to produce and object are free for all to use. But many of the big players in the 3D printer industry own patents for technological advancements that may prevent your desktop 3D prints from improvement.
Companies like StrataSys, 3D Systems, Z-Corp and Objet have been in the 3D printing business for several decades and have developed over many years the technology we see today in their products. Naturally they have patented any new development to protect and profit from their research.
Any advancements covered by these patents will only be seen in their own prosumer 3D printers, but currently these “big brand” 3D printers cost between $2000 to $5000.
The home-user and hobbyist sub-$2000 3D printer market seems to see a new “KickStarter” 3D printer project every week, but these printers will be hampered to lower quality print results due to patent issues. In fact, FormLabs are already dealing with a patent infringement lawsuit brought by 3D Systems.
Patents covering technology that will improve the quality of printed objects, how groups of printers can work together and multi-colored printing have already been granted to the major players.
Stratasys has patents that cover heated build chamber to regulate filament cooling for print quality, smoothing the “ridged surfaces” of prints using a chemical bath, soluble support structures for printing overhangs, and several filament spools
If you’re interested in a prosumer 3D printer that allows you to create models that require no painting, such as action figures or toy cars, then you might have to wait a while. Z-Corp owns a patent for multi-colored object printing and Objet have a patent application in the works which deals with multi-material 3D printing.
Another big-player is 3D Systems and they haven’t been lazy with patents either. Amongst others they have a patents for a method of printing multiple models on the same build platform to maximize build space, a method for object production using multiple users and 3D printers (as in a 3D printing service) and a removable build chamber to improve the ease of print object post-processing.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation have already warned that many of these patents will not expire for several years or even a decade, and will restrict the advancement of low-cost 3D printers.