The Patent War Between Formlabs and DWS
There’s a silent war being waged between two giants of 3D printing: DWS and Formlabs.
The two companies both produce high-quality SLA-style 3D printers, and have been very successful in their markets. But as presented in a press release published by DWS, a series of legal actions is being undertaken between the two parties.
Formlabs is no stranger to patent actions, as they were quickly sued by 3D Systems in 2012, soon after Formlabs emerged from their notable Kickstarter launch. As we understand it, the two companies settled their affair out of court in 2014, but the terms of this were never publicly released. We can speculate that Formlabs ended up paying 3D Systems some type of royalty payment based on machine unit sales, at least until the corresponding 3D Systems patents expired.
Then in 2016 we saw a patent infringement action filed by EnvisionTEC against Formlabs, in which the company felt that Formlabs was using some of their SLA inventions. Formlabs Co-Founder and CEO Max Lobovsky said recently that “today, Formlabs does not pay any license fees based on litigation outcome to any entity” and “the United States Patent Office confirmed that the patent claims previously asserted by EnvisionTEC have been found to be invalid.”
Now we see that DWS, an Italy-based manufacturer of a similar SLA-style 3D printer for professional use, has filed multiple actions against Formlabs.
From their press release:
“The Italian producer of stereolithography 3D printing machines, DWS S.r.l., recently filed a counterclaim alleging infringement of its U.S. patent and damages in a lawsuit started by Formlabs Inc. before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division.
In its complaint, Formlabs sought a declaratory judgement of non-infringement of the DWS US patent No. 8,945,456 by its FORM 2 3D printing machine. The patent relates to the heating system in the 3D stereolithographic printers. On Nov. 13, 2018, DWS filed a counterclaim for infringement and damages referring to the manufacture, use, and sale by Formlabs of the FORM 2 printer.”
So it seems that Formlabs wanted to ensure they were clear of DWS’s heating system patent, which is pictured above from DWS’s patent application from 2010. The heating elements are labeled “6”, and the heat sensor is “7”.
Reading through DWS’ patent does indicate a significant amount of verbiage devoted to the heating system and how it works. The idea is that by precisely controlling the temperature, you can obtain better results per different materials.
However, this is DWS’ side of the story. Formlabs may - or may not - have a sufficiently similar heating arrangement to be declared by a court as infringing. This is all a matter of interpretation.
Meanwhile, there are other similar lawsuits pending, according to DWS:
“This action and the recent DWS infringement and damages counterclaim brings the litigation with Formlabs Inc. to a next level. In fact, several patent infringement litigations are already pending between DWS and Formlabs in Italy, Germany and Turkey since 2017. With reference to the heating system for the 3D stereolithographic printers patented by DWS, the German Court of Mannheim issued a judgment on Aug. 3, 2018 declaring that FORM 2 infringes the German portion of the DWS European patent No. EP 2 461 963.
In its counterclaim, DWS also asserts that Formlabs's infringement is, and has been, willful. DWS seeks damages and an injunction as remedies for the infringement by the FORM 2 printer launched by Formlabs Inc. in September 2015.”
I suspect the reason for all these lawsuits is that Formlabs has found a way to manufacture and sell SLA equipment to the very same markets as 3D Systems, EnvisionTEC and DWS - but at vastly lower price levels. As a result, Formlabs’ Form 2 machine has been extremely popular and can often be found installed where one of the other alternatives might have been acquired in previous years. In other words, these companies are feeling the heat from Formlabs’ products and are reacting as best they can.
After Formlabs’ first experience with patent litigation, you can bet they spent some of their vast funding to attempt to ensure they were protected against patent claims. This would be done by devising mechanisms that were suitably different from other existing designs. This is perhaps why they were the first to launch a suit, apparently believing they have a unique design. Evidently DWS felt otherwise.
It is a competitive world, and we will see this type of legal action from time to time as new inventions and marketing strategies cause problems for companies. We don’t know how this will turn out, as Formlabs is notoriously quiet on such matters.
DWS announced the litigation last month; earlier this month, the Virginia Eastern District Court issued an order that “all counts of Formlabs's complaint in this action are dismissed with prejudice.”