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3D printing patents ready to expire in 2014

Usually I do not do this but I’m going to re-blog a very interesting article. Recently I wrote about Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). Well, in 2014 all the SLS patents will expire allowing the cost of these printers to drop dramatically.

3D printing will explode in 2014, thanks to the expiration of key patents

By Christopher Mims @mims July 21, 2013

Current 3D printers are cheap, but compared to where we’re going, they’re as Pong is to the iPhone. AP/Eric Risberg

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

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 Scott Crump, 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.”

Many of those inexpensive 3D printers are being manufactured in—where else?—China. In addition to a thriving home-grown industry in 3D printers, in 2012 China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology launched an initiative to fund 10 research centers devoted to 3D printing, at a cost of 200 million yuan ($32 million).

Disruptive implications for industry and the democratization of distributed manufacturing

Copies of famous works of art are just the beginning.AP/Cosmo Wenman

One thing a lot of observers don’t understand about 3D printing is that not all 3D printing technologies are created equal. The revolution in manufacturing that was supposed to come with cheap, desktop 3D printers hasn’t materialized because, frankly, the models they produce are basically novelties, handy for giving you a feel for what something will look like in three dimensions, but not really usable for creating prototypes that can be directly translated into molds for mass production, and certainly not usable for creating finished goods.

With the expiration of patents on laser sintering 3D printing, however, all of that is about to change. Currently, designers who want to go from idea to finished product in a matter of hours, and create finished products to sell to the public—like these accessories for Google Glass—have to order 3D prints from a company like Shapeways. The problem is, Shapeways’ services are in such demand that it takes two weeks to get a finished product from the company, which is hardly the future of instant manufacturing that 3D printing was supposed to enable.

One of Shapeways’ problems is that the company can’t buy enough advanced 3D printers (the laser-sintering kind) to keep up with demand. This is because 3D Systems, the company that makes the models that Shapeways uses, has a 12- to 18-month waitlist for its printers. Cheap laser-sintering 3D printers of the sort made by Formlabs, which sells a desktop laser-sintering 3D printer for $3,300, could finally give people the ability to manufacture (plastic) parts of the same quality as those mass-produced through traditional means, such as injection molding. (Formlabs got around the patent issue by first getting sued by and then licensing the IP of 3D Systems, which controls the key patents that are set to expire.)

[Correction: Formlabs’ Form 1 printer is not an SLS printer, but an SLA or STL model, which means it uses yet a third 3D printing technology (which is also dependent on light) called stereolithography. In SLA printing, a photo-sensitive liquid resin is exposed to light, and cured into a solid plastic one layer at a time. This technology is also covered by some of the critical patents mentioned in this piece.]

Or, if you believe Duann Scott, people will continue to use services like those of his company so that they can get even higher quality 3D prints, and in larger quantities—and, potentially, much faster than the current turnaround time of two weeks. All of this means that the release of these patents could be an important step in getting us to the future of mass customization and distributed manufacturing that we were promised.


So exciting!!





3D Printer Spotlight: Replicator 1

3d coin

The Replicator 1 is great diverse FDM 3D printer. If you are looking to print in both PLA and ABS look no further.


Company: MakerBot now owned by Stratasys

Material Used: PLA and ABS

Filament Width: 1.75mm

Nozzle Diameter: 0.4mm (Basically the width of the extruded plastic.)

Bed Size: 11.2 L x 6.0 W x 6.1 H in [28.5 x 15.3 x 15.5 cm] (Basically the maximum size a printed object can be.)

Z Layer Resolution: 0.1mm PLA suggested 0.2mm ABS (This is the thickness of the essentially 2D layers.)

Cost (Assembled):  Only available used. However. since the project was open source another company decided to make almost an exact copy of it called the Flash Forge. It costs $1,199.


Cost (Kit): NA

Pros: Can print in both PLA and ABS. Has two nozzles and can print in two colors.

Cons: No longer available except used or as a duplicate machine. The bed slightly warps when heated due to it’s aluminum construction. Many suggest replacing the aluminum bed with a glass one for more even prints.

Printing Video:


56084-replicator1 makerbot-replicator-handson2011-11-2221-26-4060048513-dsc04088-1

3D Printer Spotlight: Replicator 2

The Replicator 2 is one of the most reliable FDM 3D printers on the market.


Company: MakerBot now owned by Stratasys

Material Used: PLA

Filament Width: 1.75mm

Nozzle Diameter: 0.4mm (Basically the width of the extruded plastic.)

Bed Size: 11.2 L x 6.0 W x 6.1 H in [28.5 x 15.3 x 15.5 cm] (Basically the maximum size a printed object can be.)

Z Layer Resolution: 0.1mm (This is the thickness of the essentially 2D layers.)

Cost (Assembled):  $2199

Cost (Kit): NA

Pros: Extremely reliable compared to other 3D printers. Therefore less maintenance is required.

Cons: Very expensive. Does not come in a kit. 3D printers from MakerBot are no longer open source. Can only print in PLA.

Printing Video:


mb-rep2-features-1 0makerbot91903 Replicator-2-1112-de

3D Printer Spotlight: Printrbot Simple

Today we are going to be spotlighting our first FDM 3D printer.

The Printrbot Simple is one of the cheapest 3D printers on the market.


Company: Printrbot

Material Used: PLA

Filament Width: 1.75mm

Nozzle Diameter: 0.4mm (Basically the width of the extruded plastic.)

Bed Size: 4″x4″x4″ (Basically the maximum size a printed object can be.)

Z Layer Resolution: 0.1mm (This is the thickness of the essentially 2D layers.)

Cost (Assembled): $399

Cost (Kit): $299

Pros: Extremely cheap and uses some interesting technology such as Kevlar belts. Good quality for price.

Cons: End stops sold separately. End stops restrict the movement of the printer when it reached it’s limits. Without them you can damage your printer if you move any of the axes beyond it’s limitations. So it is highly suggested you get the end stop upgrade.

Printing Video:


pigss file

Stereolithography, from liquid to 3D model at the speed of light

Stereolithography (SLA)

Today we are going to discuss another method of 3D printing named stereolithography (SLA). Really it is just another big word for a pretty simple concept. SLA uses a liquid plastic that is placed in a container, within which is a platform very similar to a platform in a FDM printer. The liquid which is called a photopolymer, is simply a liquid which when exposed to light (usually UV) polymerizes into long strands forming a solid. This is similar to the photopolymer that dentists use to fill cavities, and what that funny blue light is for.


The photopolymer used for 3D printing is not as safe as ones used in dentistry. Therefore, when handling 3D printer photopolymer that is in liquid form, gloves should be worn at all times.

At the beginning of a SLA print, the submerged platform is raised to the surface of the liquid. A UV laser is then used to draw the first essentially 2D layer of the model. The platform moves down and the second layer is solidified by the laser. This continues until the model is completed.


SLA still requires support material for overhangs just like FDM. However, since the resolution of SLA is much greater than FDM, the removal of the support material is easier and leaves almost no artifacts.

Below is a video made by 3D Systems that explains the process in a very Lord of the Rings tone.

Until recently this type of 3D printing was very costly, about $250,000 for one printer!

However, a company named Formlabs has created a SLA printer that costs only $3,299. The platform actually works a little differently in this printer. It is not fully submerged in the liquid and works by raising the model out of the container.


Here’s a interview of of the creators of the printer at Maker Faire 2012.

Examples: These models were produced on the Form 1 printer.


PVA (Polyvinyl alcohol) the plastic that’s afraid of water

Today we are going to be starting a multipart series looking at some non-standard materials that are printed using Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM).

PVA (Polyvinyl alcohol)

This type of polymer dissolves in water!! FDM printers which have two nozzles can print in PVA and usually ABS simultaneously. When the print is done the model can be submerged in water. The PVA will dissolve leaving the ABS portion of the model intact. The advantages are the ability to print models with overhangs. This method can also be used to print floating or movable parts.

This cube was printed in gray ABS and off-white PVA by thingiverse user Tony Buser.


After printing it was submerged in water.


The PVA dissolved and the ABS remained. This allowed the Hilbert cube containing many overhangs to be printed.


How it’s made

PVA is produced through multiple chemical reactions. However, the starting compound is ethylene gas. So, where does ethylene gas come from? Well it is actually produced by some plants when their fruit ripens. It can also be produced from ethanol. These methods are just too expensive for commercial production. So, it’s made from you guessed it oil. However, it is able to be broken down by some types of bacteria making it biodegradable.

Material Properties:

Type of 3D printing which utilizes material: FDM (Fused deposition Modeling)

Usually printed with dual extrusion as a support material.

Most printers utilize 1.7mm filament, some use 3mm filament

Strength:  Weak and water soluble. Used as structural support for other materials.

Post Processing:  PVA support material can be removed by submersing the model in water. This allows the PVA to dissovlve.

Suggested Printing Temperature:  160-175 °C DO NOT EXTRUDE AT HIGHER TEMPERATURES!

The accuracy at which temperature is controlled is dependent on the printer.

Special Considerations: PVA starts to absorb water from the air as soon as it is opened. For those of you in humid environments the effect will be greatly increased. I suggest resealing the PVA in a bag using a vacuum sealer when not in use. This will allow it to last much longer.

Biodegradable: Yes

Renewable Resource: No

Starting material= oil

Cost: $88 -$90 a kg

Favorite Source:  Ultimachine both 1.7mm and 3mm filament available in many sizes.

Color: PVA is usually only available in it’s natural color off white.


Example: This ABS gear mechanism was produced in one print with PVA as the support material. It has moving parts!