Will 3D printing survive patents?

The 3D printing revolutions is only just beginning. But why is it only just beginning now?

The modern 3D printing craze is all about FFF (fused filament fabrication) based 3D printers. It’s brought the price of 3D printing down from hundreds of thousands of dollars to a few hundred dollars. There’s no messing around with expensive photosensitive resins, or toxic powders and expensive lasers like in previous generations of 3D printing. It’s a technology that has taken 3D printers from the offices of elite engineering firms into high-schools, libraries, and hospitals.

But the revolutionary new technology isn’t new, and the only thing revolutionary about it is that it’s no longer being priced out of your reach.

The earliest documentation we have on that methodology is the 1989 stratasys patent. Since then they’ve decided to focus on more expensive 3D printing technologies, catering to elite clients and pricing most people out of their offerings.

So why the focus on high cost technologies? Why does stratasys consistently choose a big piece of a small pie? If the technology has existed for decades, why did we have to wait until their patents expired to get reasonably priced 3D printers into our schools?

I don’t know. I can only imagine that it’s something to do with their corporate culture. Whatever the reason, the result is the same. They have a history of choosing strategies that hurt consumers and the world. I know that may sound drastic, but I’ve seen 3D printers used to lower the cost of prosthetics in third world countries, and to replace thousand dollar instrument adapters for disabled musicians. It makes a very real difference in real peoples lives.

They certainly changed how makerbot industries does business. Since they acquired makerbot, makerbot has implemented a price discrimination scheme and ended almost all of their community collaboration. Changing it from a project about helping humanity into a project solely about making money.

For me, personally, I look at a move to closed source as the ultimate betrayal. When I was forced out, it was a normal, if unfortunate, clash of wills where one person must stay and one person must go. I swallowed my ego and left, because I knew that the company I founded would carry my ideals further into the world. Regardless of our differences, I had assumed that Bre would continue to follow the principles that we founded the company on, and the same principles that played a major part in the success of our company. Moving from an open model to a closed model is contrary to everything that I stand for, and as a co-founder of MakerBot Industries, it makes me ashamed to have my name associated with it.

~Zach Hoeken, co-founder of makerbot industries.

What would the world have been like if they hadn’t locked that idea up for the 20 years it takes for a patent to expire?

What happens if they decide to lock another idea up for 20 years?

It’s a lot easier to write a patent then actually develop new technology, and they’re churning out new patents at an alarming rate. Including patents on 3D printing prosthetics. They’re most likely building up a patent base in order to litigate their competitors.

Patents are supposed to encourage innovation, but they’re not encouraging innovation if a company is just setting on them in order to maintain some kind of legal superiority, and continue their price discrimination scheme.

Right now the 3D printing world is very competitive, with a ton of small companies competing. But how are those small companies supposed to compete now that stratasys and their legal team have turned their attention to that emerging market? When stratasys doesn’t need to innovate, they can simply litigate? When they can simply purchase the industry leader and tell it to use their methodology?

The future of 3D printing looks more and more like it’s going to be ruled by one company and one vision. Sadly it’s a vision that’s known more for lining their own wallets then producing technology that makes the world better.

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One Response to Will 3D printing survive patents?

  1. I agree that this is Not Cool, by any account. But what I’m looking forward to is when consumer-level 3D printing does to patent law what the internet has done to copyright law: i.e. makes it almost completely unenforceable in the majority of instances. The patent system is extremely broken and has been for a long time (software patent law is just the tip of the iceberg), and it simply won’t be able to handle the massive amounts of violations that are guaranteed to occur as soon as the mainstream starts to tinker.

    This is not to say that I think intellectual property laws are not important, but they are very very due for a revamp, and there’s currently nothing within our system that would motivate a revamp. Not yet. :)

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