3D Printer Patents

Technologies and inventions that facilitate the 3D printing process are legally protected from the use of others by 3D printer patents. Within the past few years, controversy arose about the simultaneous expiration of many critical 3D printing patents. 

Opponents spoke out against the conventional idea that patents create competition by forcing others to invent workarounds for protected inventions and intellectual property. They argued that 3D printing patents prevent innovation since companies and individuals may avoid creating similar technologies and investing in research and development in the 3D printing industry for fear of being sued. They believe that this may have hurt the progress of this technology by barring new players from entering the market, reducing competition, and inflating prices.

Between 2013 and 2015, patent protection expired for several nascent 3D printing inventions. While new 3D printers based on these technologies have been created by several different companies since 2015, it is unclear whether this occurred as a direct result of the end date of these patents. 

In 2016, the first product by new 3D printing company Carbon was announced. This creation, the Carbon M1, takes advantage of the company's Continuous Liquid Interface Product, or CLIP, which some believe is a derivative of an early VPP 3D printing patent. However, the two patent applications filed for CLIP at the end of 2014 indicate that this is not the case. Since PBF patents expired, new companies have begun to offer low-cost versions of this type of 3D printer, but again, whether this directly resulted from the patent expiration is unclear. Two of these companies are Sinterit and Norge Systems. 

In 2014, Norge Systems began an ultimately unsuccessful fundraising campaign via the online community Kickstarter for two affordable home PBF printer models. After the failure of this campaign, the company was bought out by another company and never released a consumer-grade 3D printer. Sinterit recently released an affordable 3D printer called Lisa, but it is unclear as of yet whether this product will ultimately be a commercial success. 

More 3D Printing Patents Expiring

The following 3D printing patents will expire within the next few years, listed in order of the soonest expiration date. 

  • A McAlea patent for a process for 3D fabrication that involves repeatedly dispensing and fusing layers of powder that consists of spherical particles.
  • A Lohner and Wilkening patent for an apparatus that can 3D print objects using radiation. The invention has a removable base that facilitates faster creation time for 3D prototypes.
  • A patent granted to Russell for an apparatus that can 3D print from a stored memory. 
  • A Batchelder patent for a prototyping method for predetermined 3D shapes. It uses a thermal substance that becomes solid at a specific temperature. 
  • A patent granted to Manning for apparatuses and methods for laser sintering. The invention includes a powder spreading system that layers the substance onto a surface and a laser with a scanner that is used to direct the beam of light along a vector.
  • A patent granted to Meiners for a manufacturing procedure that can be used for any molded body, including a product prototype or component, tool prototype, or spare part. It uses 3D CAD data to deposit metallic powder in layers to create the desired object. 
  • A Swanson et al. patent for a thin-wall tube liquefier. This invention uses an extruder to deposit layers of a solidifying material that can be used to create 3D objects.

How Expiring Patents Are Ushering in the Next Generation of 3D Printing

2016 has seen more 3D printing innovation than ever before. Although it's not yet clear whether this will be the next industrial revolution, we do know that we can expect the price of 3D printing to drop as the quality of the objects created increases. This development is directly related to the new accessibility of existing technologies as the patents for these 3D printing innovations expire. The companies who owned these original patents no longer have a monopoly on the 3D printer industry.

As with similar technologies, the new wave of 3D printing innovation is traveling from industry to the consumer and retail sectors. This wave includes metal, powder, and liquid-based methods for 3D printing. 

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