Thursday, February 21, 2013

Patents vs. Innovation: 3D Printing Edition (SSYS; DDD; IRBT)

The premise of this piece is stretching a bit in calling the assignees "Big Business". Stratasys and 3D Systems may be big in the 3D printer world but they are actually pretty small companies.
More worrisome for the "Open"-everything crowd is the patent that Nathan Myhrvold obtained. In the words of Technology Review:
A patent that covers digital encryption of "objects" could bring copy protection to 3-D printing. 
Copyright protection is turning out to be more all-encompassing than patent protection in a lot of IP situations.

From Wired:
How Big Business is Stymying Makers’ High-Res, Colorful Innovations
If you're waiting for desktop additive-manufacturing technology to move closer to professional-level results, be prepared to wait for a very long time.

The past year was a breakout for desktop 3-D printing. MakerBot released two new models, Formlabs debuted the first prosumer 3-D printer to use high-accuracy stereolithography, and a slew of innovative, printed projects lifted awareness and desirability of additive manufacturing for the general public.

But the year ended with a legal hiccup. Formlabs will be dealing with a patent infringement lawsuit brought against them by 3D Systems, one of the biggest players in the industry. The hobbyist segment of the industry has been built on the back of expired patents, but as the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, many patents that will be required to advance the state of the art will not expire for years or even a decade.

We've uncovered 10 patents that could severely stifle innovation in the low-cost segment of the 3-D printing market and keep you from making colorful, smooth-finished figures and precise, articulating parts. These patents cover core technologies and ease-of-use features, and could take momentum from the upstarts and return it to the entrenched companies.
Among the patents:
High temperature modeling apparatus

Patent Number: 6,722,872
Date Issued: April 20, 2004
Assignee: Stratasys
Who Should Be Worried: Anyone who makes a "Fused Filament"-style 3-D printer (e.g., MakerBot, RepRap projects, UP!, Cubify)

Manufacturing with plastics, whether injection molding or 3-D printing, is a tricky business. As plastic cools, it shrinks, and that shrinkage can cause deformation.

High-end printers combat this by keeping the build chamber at a high temperature throughout the build process to mitigate warping. Stratasys received the patent for this feature in 2004.
Popular home-based 3-D printers have open build chambers, meaning an errant breeze can chill plastic and destroy hours of print work. The photograph above shows several experiments a maker had to run in order to deal with the effects of temperature variability on his parts. This patent means RepRap derivatives won’t be able to incorporate a warming chamber and reduce this kind of experimentation until 2021. While not a deal breaker now, as we move beyond the "gee whiz!" phase of 3-D printing in the home, it will become increasingly important....

Support volume calculation for a CAD model

Patent Number: 6,907,307
Date Granted: June 14, 2005
Assignee: 3D Systems
Who Should Be Worried: Customers who value usable software. While it may be horrifying to some in the tech world, 3-D printer companies have filed and received patents on many software features.

One example is the ability to see how much support material a model will require — a feature patented by 3D Systems, unavailable to others until after 2018. Another example is a software feature that automatically places multiple models on the same build platform, maximizing the space, patented by Stratasys and locked up until the roaring 2020s....

HT: Reason's Hit & Run blog

And of course there's the one I keep thinking about, iRobot's autonomous 3D printer patent which covers robot 3D printers that can make robot 3D printers.