Many industry commentators have said that patents are preventing advances in 3D printing, but this may change in 2014. According to Duann Scott, design evangelist at Shapeways, key patents relating to “laser sintering” held by industry giants such as 3D Systems will expire allowing other companies to develop competing machines.
Currently most consumer level 3D printers are FDM machines (Fused Deposition Modeling) which build parts layer by layer using melted plastic material. Laser sintering machines are able to produce metal parts are a much higher resolution, but the industrial grade machines are extremely expensive.
Laser sintering 3D printers cost tens of thousands of dollars and are able to produce finished products and are suitable for use in a production environment. As FDM printers produce lower quality parts they are mainly useful for producing prototypes, but there has been a massive explosion in their use in small businesses and by hobbyists. This was mainly due to FDM patents expiring several years ago. Scott expects the same for laser sintering 3D printers, with increased competition leading to massive price drop for this type of machine.
Currently Shapeways’ customers have to wait several weeks to get their finished products as the company is unable to get a sufficient number of laser sintering 3D printers. The 3D Systems printers that Shapeways uses have a delivery time of over a year which makes it difficult for them to plan for increases in production.
Scott and Shapeways are hoping that these expired patents will provide an increased choice of laser sintering 3D printers from competing manufactures, at a much lower cost.