We've been observing some of the fantastic features offered by the major 3D printer manufacturers and realized there could be a growing problem.
While all 3D printers can produce objects, some manufacturers use unique (and patented) approaches to getting that done. They also offer some great features:
- ZCorp's printers can print in full color. Their technology involves mixing pigment with the print material during the print process.
- Objet's printers include PolyJet, a way to mix two different materials during the print. You can print a single object that includes both hard and soft areas, for example.
Terrific features, yes, but what if we want a color object with hard and soft areas? Perhaps ZCorp could license PolyJet from Objet? Or perhaps Objet could license color printing technology from ZCorp? Maybe 3D Systems could license both technologies for their 3D printers?
We find ourselves in a rather peculiar situation, analogous to a bizarre 2D paper printing world in which if you wanted to print in color you'd have to buy an (say) Epson printer, but if you wanted to print envelopes you'd have to get a Canon. And don't even think about color envelopes! Not so cool. Yet that's what we actually experience today in 3D printing.
How can this be resolved? There's a couple of ways:
- Companies can cross-license their technology as mentioned above. We feel this is unlikely, as it reduces (or even eliminates) the differentiation that exists between vendors today and would increase costs
- Manufacturers can somehow design similar features in their products - but use a completely different approach to avoid patent licensing issues. That sounds pretty difficult and probably would take too much time to bother
And that's it, just two options. Both seem unlikely or distant, unfortunately.
Will we see a "universal" 3D printer include all of the obvious features? Probably not any time soon. For now we'll have to iive with 3D printing's Great Divide.