Get Ready: 3D Printing Will Explode Next Year, When Key Patents Expire

The lifting of intellectual property barriers will lead to a rise in competition and a huge drop in price.
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Current 3D printers are cheap, but compared to where we're going, they're as Pong is to the iPhone. (AP)

Here's what's holding back 3D printing, the technology that's supposed to revolutionize manufacturing and countless other industries: patents. In February 2014, key patents that currently prevent competition in the market for the most advanced and functional 3D printers will expire, says Duann Scott, design evangelist at 3D-printing company Shapeways.

These patents cover a technology known as "laser sintering," the lowest-cost 3D-printing technology. Because of its high resolution in all three dimensions, laser sintering can produce goods that can be sold as finished products.

Whenever someone talks about 3D printing revolutionizing manufacturing, they're talking about the kinds of goods produced by, for example, the industrial-grade 3D printing machines used by Shapeways. The company used by countless industrial designers, artists and entrepreneurs who can't afford their own 3D laser sintering printers, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars each.

A huge drop in price and a flood of Chinese 3D printers

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Older models of 3D printers are already pouring out of China. (Xinhua)

Once the key patents on 3D printing via laser sintering expire, we could see huge drop in the price of these devices, says Scott. This isn't just idle speculation; when the key patents expired on a more primitive form of 3D printing, known as fused deposition modeling, the result was an explosion of open-source FDM printers that eventually led to iconic home and hobbyist 3D printer manufacturer Makerbot. And Makerbot was recently acquired by 3D-printing giant Stratasys for about $400 million in stock, plus a potential $200 million stock bonus. That acquisition was a homecoming of sorts for Makerbot; Stratasys was founded by Charles Hull, who invented 3D printing via FDM, the very technology on which Makerbot was based.

Within just a few years of the patents on FDM expiring, the price of the cheapest FDM printers fell from many thousands of dollars to as little as $300. This led to a massive democratization of hobbyist-level 3D printers and injected a huge amount of excitement into the nascent movement of "Makers," who manufacture at home on the scale of one object at a time.

A similar sequence involving the lifting of intellectual property barriers, a rise in competition, and a huge drop in price is likely to play out again in laser deposition 3D printers, says Shapeways' Scott. "This is what happened with FDM," he says. "As soon as the patents expired, everything exploded and went open-source, and now there are hundreds of FDM machines on the market. An FDM machine was $14,000 five years ago and now it's $300."

Presented by

Christopher Mims is the science and technology correspondent for Quartz. His work has appeared in Wired and Scientific American, as well as on the BBC.

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