You likely are not familiar with US patent 684116B2, but you’ll likely be hearing a lot more about it in the next few years.
3D Printing Patent Rights
Patents are essentially a government-granted monopoly for a specific method for a limited time period. During that period the patent owner has exclusive rights to use the method, and can seek damages or pursue other legal avenues against any other party that attempts to use the same method.
It’s a kind of reward for the ingenuity of the inventors, as they can leverage the patent’s powers to create a good business. Usually this means paying premium prices for a product based on the patent’s method.
However, eventually the patent’s term expires and at that point the method is effectively public domain; anyone can use it without fear of legal action. Typically this results in a small explosion of smaller vendors marketing similar products based on the expired method, often at far lower price levels and sometimes with unusual differences that the original patent owner had not considered.
Stratasys Patent Expiry
Readers of this publication will be aware of a case involving 3D printing that happened in 2009. At that time Stratasys’ original patent on the FDM process expired, opening the door for others to produce 3D printers with the same method. We all know what happened next: hundreds of 3D printer startup companies emerged, with MakerBot being one the earliest success stories.
Since then the intense competition among these new entrants has driven the technology to levels unimagined years ago. Today we have 3D printers offering considerable automation, a massive choice of materials, equipment size, and all with significant reliability improvements. It’s a good time for users of FFF 3D printer manufacturers.
All of that happened due to the expiry of the Stratasys patent.
US Patent 684116B2
Back to US Patent 684116B2. This patent is currently assigned to 3D Systems, one of the larger players in 3D printer manufacturing. The patent’s abstract says:
“A selective deposition modeling method and apparatus for dispensing a curable phase change material. The dispensing temperature of the material is set at or less than a thermally stable temperature value for the material in which the reactive component of the material remains substantially uncured when held at the temperature for a desired time period. The dispensed material is provided with an environment that enables the material to solidify to form layers of the object. The solidified material is normalized to a desired layer thickness and is then cured by exposure to actinic radiation.”
At top you can see an image of a conceptual machine that makes use of the patent’s method. Basically it describes a moving tool head that selectively deposits a layer of liquid photopolymer resin, and a UV light source that then solidifies that layer. This process repeats, layer-by-layer, to build up a complete 3D object.
This process seems to be what 3D Systems use in their (Multijet) MJP line of 3D printers. Here’s a video of someone using a 3D Systems ProJet MJP 2500. At the 2:50 mark, you can see the system depositing and solidifying the photopolymer as described in the patent.
Patent 684116B2 Expiry
What’s the big deal here? It turns out that patent 684116B2 expires on October 9, 2022. That’s only two years and seven months away.
After that date, anyone could theoretically market a device that uses the same process described in patent 684116B2. You can be sure that will happen.
But what will be the effect on 3D Systems? What will change after that date?
New 3D Printing Entrants In 2022
In a way, today is similar to the situation the 3D printing industry found itself in 2007, a couple of years before the Stratasys patent expired. It is highly likely there are startups or even existing 3D printer companies starting now to design and build new 3D printers that use this process. They cannot sell them until October 2022, but they can certainly build them stealthily in a lab.
The strategy here would be to quietly develop the systems so that they are ready to be announced and released when the patent expires. If one were to start developing a system as the patent expired, you’d be far behind others who smartly started earlier.
Thus in the fall of 2022 it is highly likely we’ll see a slew of announcements for new 3D printers using this process. It could be 2009 all over again, where multiple parties compete for the business through innovations and price competition.
This would be very good news for those interested in using this 3D printing process.
3D Systems After Patent Expiry
While the good news lands on users, the opposite could face 3D Systems, who at that point would lose their monopoly on the process. However, it’s not all doom and gloom; there are plenty of interesting options for 3D Systems.
It is important to remember that 3D Systems’ MJP technology is very mature and quite powerful. It might take some years for new entrants to match their capabilities. This also happened after 2009 in the FFF world.
3D Systems will also have a large amount of equipment placed at customer sites that’s under longer term leases. These machines are financially obligated to stay operating during the lease period. During that period these clients will continue to purchase materials for their MJP systems from 3D Systems at similar price levels. Thus 3D Systems has a guaranteed revenue stream for years to come. Even now, eleven years after the Stratasys patent expired, that company still has significant material revenue from their FDM fleet.
Stratasys made a strong move a couple of years after their major patent expiry by acquiring Objet. In the end, it turned out to be Objet acquiring Stratasys, but the strategy was still valid: Objet still had multiple active patents on 3D printing, and they would allow Stratasys to continue operating in a similar manner for some years forward. That technology is now their leading product.
Could 3D Systems consider a major acquisition in a similar strategy? I think that while they’ve struggled financially, they still have considerable resources and could make a move on another party. If this was considered, I don’t believe it would be to attempt an acquisition of Carbon or Desktop Metal, as their valuations are likely higher than 3D Systems could afford. But there are many smaller players with interesting technologies that could be considered.
The situation with patent 684116B2 is surely to be one of the big concerns for the as-yet-unnamed incoming CEO for 3D Systems.
Via Google Patents