Laser Sintering 3D Printing May Now Take Off with a Very Important Patent Expiring Today

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For the past year or so, a lot has been made about several upcoming 3D Printing patents that are set to expire.  In fact, one big one is expiring today, with several more coming to an end within a few more months.

3D Printing has been around for over 30 yeas, so many very important patents have already expired.  We have seen the price of FDM (fused deposition modeling) printers decrease dramatically since the patent for FDM expired 5 years ago.  If it wasn’t for the expiration of this patent, MakerBot probably wouldn’t be around, and they certainly would not be selling 3D Printers for $1375 (Although the owner of the patent, Stratasys ended up acquiring MakerBot).  Prior to the patents expiration, you would typically find a printer that used this FDM technology to cost in the $25,000 range.

Today marks the expiration date for one very important patent.  That would be Patent #5,597,589: ‘Apparatus for producing parts by selective sintering’.

For those of you that do not know what selective sintering is (often referred to as SLS), it’s a process of 3D printing where powder is hit by a laser, in layers to fuse material together and create a solid object.  Many different materials may be used including glass, metal, ceramics, and plastics.  You don’t see this technology in the typical consumer level 3D Printers, simply because they would be too expensive.  However, it is by far a more advanced technology than the FDM method which lays layers of heated plastic on top of each other to create 3D objects.

The patent which was originally filed by Carl R. Deckard, and owned by his start-up company (DTM), has since been taken over by 3D Systems when they acquired DTM.

The main thing people expect to happen, with the expiration of this patent, including many experts in the field, is a significant increase in the production of SLS 3D printers, follow by a large decrease in the price.  Some are led to believe that Chinese manufacturing firms will quickly be spitting out cheaply made SLS printers at a small fraction of the cost of current printers.  However, others argue that there are still too many barriers for entry. The expiring patent is an old one, and while it is probably the most important in selective laser sintering printing, it isn’t the only one.  There are literally dozen of other patents that are still valid that center around SLS. This means that any company that wishes to enter into the selective laser sintering market, must make sure that they are not breaking any of the more modern patents.  This can be shaky ground, that many entrepreneurs and corporation wish to avoid.

With the possibility of a lawsuit, if a firm believes that their patents have been infringed upon,  will certainly scare off a lot of possible competitors.  At the same time though, most of the large 3D printing companies have known for years now, that this patent would be coming to an end today.  Certainly they have already taken liberty to investigate all of the other laser sintering patents out there, to prepare themselves for the moment this occurred.  It is unlikely that many Chinese companies that are used to making cheap merchandise will venture into possible patent wars.  However companies like Stratasys, and their subsidiary Makerbot will surely try and find a way around the newer, still active patents.

One thing to consider though, is the fact that 3D Systems does make consumer level 3D printers (The Cube & CubeX), neither of which utilize laser sintering technology. They are the ones that own the patent, so something else must have been holding them up on releasing a more affordable laser sintering consumer level 3D printer.  Perhaps it was a strategy to keep the prices of their higher end printers, which are meant for large businesses and manufacturing from falling.   Or perhaps it was the fact that running a laser sintering printer in a home office just is not feasible in their minds.

Regardless, it will surely be interesting to see what 2014 brings us in terms of laser sintering 3D printing. Will the big dogs like Stratasys, find a way into the market? Will Stratasys’ subsidiary be able to conjure up a consumer level 3D printer that utilizes this technology in the safety of a home office? Will Hewlett Packard, who has been on the sidelines for a while, finally burst through with an SLS 3D printer that blows their competition out of the water?  Your guess is as good as ours, but it will certainly be interesting to see what happens. Let us know what you think at:  http://3dprintboard.com/showthread.php?1558-Important-3D-Printing-Patent-Ends-today!-What-it-means-for-the-industry

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