Have patents helped or retarded the 3D printing industry?

This Kat has found himself increasingly engaged in various IP and related aspects regarding 3D printing (or inter alia "3D
manufacturing" or 'additive manufacturing"). Indeed, judging the ever-increasing coverage of the topic in the press (it has become a topic of particular interest for The Economist, which ensures its widespread visibility and topical gravitas: see below), the public profile of the 3D printing industry can only be expected to go from strength to strength. One by-product of this ever-increasing interest is the rise of discussion on the IP aspects of the area. In particular, focus has been given to copyright and design law issues, especially with respect to the creators and aggregators of the digital files needed to enable 3D printing to take place, and the ability to enforce IP rights against the users of such files, particular in the context of personal use, here. The patent and related aspects of 3D printing—which centre on the manufacturers of 3D printers and materials-- have appeared to attract less IP interest.

Indeed, it is curious why all the attention in 3D printing is emerging only now. After all, the algorithm that underlies 3D printing appears to reach back to the 1960s. Moreover, the first generation of patents in the area dates from the 1980s. Yet one would be hard-pressed to have encountered the level of interest that we have been witnessing over the past few years. Reasons that have been given include the speed of 3D manufacturing, the capabilities of 3D printers and the challenges in developing satisfactory materials to meet the variegated manufacturing requirements across a wide swathe of product possibilities. From the IP perspective, the tantalizing question is the extent to which patents have served as an incentive or a drag on the development of this industry.

On an anecdotal level, this Kat has heard the claim made by people involved in the industry that the first generation of patents has had the effect of depressing development. Support for this position was expressed by The Economist in a balanced discussion of the topic that appeared in the September 7, 2013 issue—"3D printing scales up", here. Thus, it was observed that
"[o]ne spur to the development of the 3D-printing industry has been falling prices and increased competition, after some of the early patents on fused-deposition modelling expired in 2009, notes a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute. This is what has brought the price of some printers down to below $1,000."
In a side-bar to this piece ("how 3D printers work"), here, it was further noted that
"at first, 3D printing was known as stereolithography, a process invented in 1986 by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems. Variations of this process are still used. "
All of this suggests that the first generation of patents may have had a dampening effect on the developmental growth of the industry. That said, this Kat feels a bit uneasy with such a broadly expressed conclusion for several reasons.

First, the side-bar article goes on to note that "[m]any other approaches have since been developed." Indeed, the piece goes on to describe several of them, namely-- (i) laser-sintering in various forms; (ii) melting of metallic powder; and (iii) jetting light-sensitive liquid materials in similar manner to 2D inkjet printing. In considering the 3D printing industry, this Kat has encountered references to additional techniques in use. The purpose here is not to leave Kat readers with glazed-over eyes about the details of these technologies (though never has Wikipedia been so welcome). Rather, this list of technologies within the field suggests that in 3D printing, as within many other areas, the existence of patents at the outset of a nascent, dynamic industry may well have had the have the effect of spurring design-around efforts, leading to overall increased innovation and patent activity in the field.

Secondly, even as to "fused deposition modelling" (apparently known by its acronym-FDM), this Kat wonders just how much of a drag patents covering this technology were in holding back development in the industry. Think of this technique as a form of a "computer-controlled glue gun", which extrudes a filament of thermoplastic. All of this is well and good but, as the article itself points out, FDM is most popular with respect to 3D printers used by hobbyists. For them, the expiry of key patents using FDM technology seems to have had the effect of lowering the price of machines to around $1,000.

However, it is the impression of this Kat that the real commercial future of 3D printing lies much less with the hobbyist (despite the scenario that has been painted whereby each of us will sooner or later have our own 3D printer, enabling us to bypass current forms of manufacture) and much more with commercial and industrial concerns, less with the sale of $1,000 units and more with the sale of units reaching a price of $1 million or more. Thus, even if the existence of first generation patents did have the effect of raising the price and thereby decreasing demand of low cost units (and to assume this, one also needs to believe that hobbyists are overwhelmingly not early adapters of technology not prepared to pay "a premium" for the FDM-based printers), the existence of these patents doe little or nothing to explain to explain the relatively slow uptake of more pricey units for commercial and industrial purposes.

All of this is another way of saying that there is a compelling need for more research about how the first generation of patent activity has served to encourage or depress innovative activity in the 3D field. Going forward, it will be interesting to observe what kinds of patents will be issued in the 3D printing field in the several years to come as indicia of where the industry will be going. Kat readers with information on this are encouraged to share it.
Have patents helped or retarded the 3D printing industry? Have patents helped or retarded the 3D printing industry? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, September 20, 2013 Rating: 5


Barbara Cookson said...

expiry of patents leading to greater competitor entry into the market is not evidence that the patent system has a depressing effect on innovation, quite the reverse. The innovators have shown the way and created the market. The pharma market has ever worked thus, its interesting to see that model working elsewhere

Anonymous said...

In the field of metals, it wasn't until the mid 90's that lasers became powerful enough to melt the metal powder to produce fully dense parts and machines are still yet to be developed that are capable of industrial use (although the current generation of machines are getting closer to this goal). There are patent issues but the key patents have often beem licensed. 3D Systems and EOS were the big players in the 90s and had a patent battle that was resolved by licensing. Since then other players, such as Concept Laser, SLM Solutions, Realizer, Arcam, Renishaw (MTT Ltd) have entered the market despite the existence of certain "key" patents.

Andy J said...

Surely this is an example of the value of patents to stimulate alternative technologies in a new area of rapidly expanding knowledge, unlike say the mobile phone market where so many of the proven technologies are now locked up in patents and the ability to innovate around existing patent protected processes is much more limited.
But all this is much healthier than the situation with copyright (in the EU at least) which continues to stifle transformative use and adaptation thus slowing the progress of the useful arts. And what is more, this stifling occurs for substantially longer periods of time than is the case with patents.

Theuns van de Merwe said...

Great post Neil! I have been following the 3D printing vs. IP debate closely, and enjoyed the article.

Anonymous said...

I ahd heard also of the patent battle between EOS and 3D systems,
It sounds true that for metal sintering the laser problem rendered it anecdotal, but for plastics it resulted in a monpolistic divide stereolithography for 3D, SLS for EOS for at least 10 years starting in the second part of the 90s...
At least in Europe, where I was working inthe field. Do not know for the US or Asia.
Not so great for innovation likely...

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