Yesterday marked the expiry of US Patent 5597589, "Apparatus for producing parts by selective sintering." This is one of the core patents in the 3D printing world -- the patent that allows 3D printer companies to charge more for fine nylon powder than Michelin-starred restaurants charge for filet mignon. The high cost of consumables in 3D printing has been a major barrier to innovation in the field -- selective laser sintering produces a fine finish that the patent-free fused deposition modeling technique used in Reprap-style printers can't match -- and now the brakes are coming off.
However, there are still lots of patents (including some genuinely terrible ones) in the 3D printing world, so the expiry of 5597589 doesn't necessarily mean that we'll see a flood of cheap printers and cheaper feedstock -- given the murkiness of the overlapping patent claims and the expense of litigating each one of them, radical new entrants into the field are still facing a lot of risk that has nothing to do with making great products at a fair price.
In a good piece on 3D Print, Eddie Krassenstein speculates about the scary supplementary laser-sintering patents lurking in the wings, pointing out that Stratasys (the major competitor of 3D Systems, who owned 5597589) didn't design their entry-lever printers to use SLS, even though they knew that the patent would be expiring in early 2014. Krassenstein suggests that this means that Stratasys knows about some other gnarly and deadly patent that would torpedo them if they went SLS.
But I'm a lot less convinced than Krassenstein is about the potential of a competitor taking the risky step of making a SLS printer that sticks to the claims in 5597589. Virtually every technical idea is covered by a stupid, overbroad patent, and yet people start businesses every day that open them to legal liability from a troll or an entrenched incumbent. If the potential for a patent suit was, in itself, a sufficient deterrent to raising capital and starting a business, we wouldn't see any startups. And a company that sticks to the claims in 5597589 has a powerful weapon in any patent suit: the USPTO granted 5597589 20 years ago, and so if they granted overlapping patents since, they were manifestly in error, a matter that is relatively (in patent terms, anyway) easy to prove.
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.
Laser Sintering 3D Printing May Now Take Off with a Very Important Patent Expiring Today [Eddie Krassenstein/3D Print]
(via O'Reilly Radar)