Stratasys, one of the largest 3D printing companies in the world today, faces transition. While the company built itself upon the FDM (fused deposition modeling) process it invented years ago, the patent for that process has expired.
With the expiration of the key patents, other organizations have replicated (no pun intended) the process and gave rise to such ventures as RepRap, MakerBot and many others. These low-cost options will eventually become sufficiently reliable and capable to compete directly against Stratasys, although they are nowhere near that stage yet.
So what is Stratasys to do?
They've already taken one step: acquiring Objet, a competitor with a different 3D printing process that remains protected under patent. This preserves Stratasys' original business model, at least for a while.
But there's another approach Stratasys can use: Materials. If you think about it, today there are many thousands of Stratasys commercial 3D printers in place today, each of which is capable of accepting proprietary filament canisters from Stratasys.
Today those canisters are filled with relatively common materials, such as ABS, Polycarbonate and Ultem, but there is no reason that Stratasys could not dramatically increase the range of materials they supply to their fleet of commercial 3D printers. New materials could in fact be protected by new patents, meaning Stratasys could continue to charge premium prices for their new, unique filament canisters for a very long time.
All they need to do is develop and test new filaments to address pressing needs of their customers. We could imagine seeing Stratasys develop the following:
- Flexible material
- A way to print two materials in the same print with two existing extruders
- Ceramic material
- Wood-like material
- Metal material (metal dust mixed with a dissolvable binder into filament)
- Bone-like material
And more, as much as they might imagine.
Stratasys has a long way to go, even if their key patent has expired.