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3D Printing: Expiring Patents Could Usher in New Era for Consumers

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Tech Biz

3D Printing: Expiring Patents Could Usher in New Era for Consumers

Advanced 3D printers could arrive next year, utilizing “laser sintering.”

With restrictive industry patents set to expire in February 2014, the indie 3D printing boom could explode into the mainstream. In a report from Quartz, 3D printing expert Duann Scott makes the case for affordable, high-spec 3D printers coming to homes and businesses across the world.

Scott, a design evangelist at 3D printing firm Shapeways, said that key patents for the most advanced and cost-effective 3D printers will expire in February. These patents, which relate to a 3D printing technology called “laser sintering,” prevent the current field of DIY desktop 3D printers from realizing their full potential.

While desktop machines from indie start-ups can produce small-scale models, the quality is far from polished. Laser sintering offers “high resolution in all three dimensions,” according to Quartz, yielding models that are of high enough quality to be sold as finished products. However, the industrial-grade 3D printers that utilize laser sintering are far too expensive for hobbyists or the average consumer.

“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,” said Quartz.

Scott predicts that the patent expiration will usher in a major drop in the cost of 3D printers that offer laser sintering. He points out that when patents expired for a more dated form of 3D printing, called fused deposition modeling (FDM), the popular in-home 3D printer Makerbot was born.

“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,” Quartz stated.

Many of the recent budget-friendly desktop 3D printers are being manufactured in China. This has led the Chinese government’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to funnel $32 million into 3D printing research. But as the platform’s popularity rises, some are skeptical about how a global boom could affect hardware integrity.

“These patents will soon encourage a race to bottom in 3D printer quality, mirroring just about major CE device in the past decade. The first tablets got popular and cheap – and manufacturers flooded the market. 3D TV looked like it was the next best thing so everyone made them … Once a device is deemed popular by the market, the quality quickly falls and the supply rises precipitously,” said Tech Crunch.

The original dot-matrix printers were noisy, slow, and inefficient – remember the continuous paper with the holes on the edges? Now, we have nearly silent, lightning-fast inkjet printers available for under $100. If 3D printing goes mainstream, expect a similarly rapid evolution.