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3D printing will explode in 2014 thanks to the expiration of key patents (qz.com)
155 points by hermanywong on July 21, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 118 comments

I'm not sure if there's a cause-effect relationship here. MakerBot was only founded in 2009 [1], RepRap released their first project in 2007 [2] and the project I was a part of, Fab@Home, open-sourced in 2006 [3].

I can't speak to the other projects' motivations, but I know that the fact that patents were expiring made little to no difference on our decision to make a printer. If you can believe it, the Fab@Home was almost an afterthought. We had top-of-the-line commercial 3D printers in the lab, but they didn't do the kind of custom material jobs required for the project that Evan Malone was doing. His PhD project was to create a 100% printed-from-scratch robot, and no technology fit the bill. So, he and Hod built one in order to get that project done. Like the Oculus, technology had advanced to the point that doing this was actually feasible on a shoestring budget. It ended up being a project of its own, but it wasn't like they saw the patents expiring and all of a sudden decided it'd be great to open-source a 3d printer design.

With how popular 3D printers are getting nowadays, it's possible some companies are looking to take advantage of the expiration of SLS patents, but I wouldn't hold your breath for an open-source project. If someone was making one, you'd know about it already.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MakerBot_Industries

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RepRap_Project

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fab@Home

I was involved with the RepRap community in 2008-2009. The expiring Stratasys patents for FDM (fused-deposition modeling, the squirt-out-hot-plastic approach used by the RepRap, MakerBot and its clones) were definitely a big deal in the community at that time. Adrian Bower, the creator of RepRap, didn't seem to care about them much but that was because he was never interested in making money off of the project anyway, just releasing its plans to the world. It would be hard to sue him for infringement. But other more commercially-minded people were definitely drawn to the opportunity afforded by the expiring patents.

On the other hand, I agree that only relatively recently has this become feasible to do on a shoestring budget. So there are a number of factors involved.

Giving plans away for free would not make it any more difficult to sue somebody for infringement. More likely, the patent holders simply didn't see it as a threat to their business (yet) and let it slide.

Giving plans is somewhat similar to quoting the patent itself.

Both should be completely legal, shouldn't they?

Would think so, but IANAL and I'm not sure about the legality of it. Infringement occurs whenever you make, sell or use the invention without license. Distributing plans seems like it would contribute to infringement, so some enterprising lawyer could make a case for it. It's like linking to infringing copyrighted content.

I recall a story about a guy who blogged about coding up a shazaam clone and then receiving a C&D from the patent owner. It was never settled whether he had any grounds to do so, but sending C&Ds is cheap and mostly consequence-free.

Patents aren't copyright, it's perfectly legal to publish plans or explanations on how to build a patented device. You can even patent an improvement on a patent you don't own.

Patents do not restrict rescues for research purposes, true. That is the one widely acknowledged exception to infringing use. That is why you can study an invention and then patent an improvement or novel enough variations thereof.

But distributing detailed plans (or source code, as mentioned in sibling comment) of something that enables others to easily recreate something covered by a patent just seems to be less clear-cut to me (IANAL).

How does this work with software? Does source code qualify as, just plans?

As a member of one of the biggest groups of Rep Rap members(in the thousands) I find patents really important.

Patents forbid you selling anything, even with no profit.

Lots of pieces need to be sold for making 3D printers accessible for all. The electronics controlling board, the hotends, the friction wheels.

Most of the general population can't fabricate those things, but they want to use 3d printing anyway, like most women(90%of reprap now is men) don't know(or care) what a fuel injector is but they want a car for going to work.

In the future it is about Inkjet cartridges, wax and ceramic binders.

Here’s what’s holding back 3D printing, the technology that’s supposed to revolutionize manufacturing and countless other industries: patents.

There's something else that's holding back 3D printing: Demand.

For all of the hype about 3D printing around how empowering it is, how cheap it's getting, and how it's going to revolutionize the world, where's the evidence that people are going to rush out to buy these, even if prices fall off a cliff?

I would ask this question. What do people buy today that could instead be 3d printed? Probably not that much. But if the question was what do people buy today that could be printed by a higher quality easier to use larger scale printer of the future, then there is an exciting opportunity. And because that is exciting, it is worth paying attention today.

I sometimes wonder if this is Henry Ford's "if I asked people what they wanted, they'd have said a 'a faster horse'" objection.

The question is perhaps not "what do we buy today that we could 3D print instead", but "what objects/things don't exist today that _could_ with widespread and affordable 3D printing" (and the associated new 3D modelling software/libraries/new-techniques which make the idea->object process more accessable).

You nailed it on the head. Often times, with new technologies that are a step function jump, rather than an incremental improvement, people think "what would I do with it that I already do, but faster/cheaper/easier", rather than "what new things does it allow me to do that I couldn't do before?"

The latter question is the correct one to answer with something as weird and new (new to consumer/pro-sumer) as 3D printing.

i'd like to press a button, and print my dinner. saves me time cooking. bonus points if it printed the utensils, all once use - thrown away after using!

"what objects/things don't exist today that _could_ with widespread and affordable 3D printing"

"Get this batman figure based on todays episode printed at home RIGHT NOW. Just ask your parent to go to acme-cartoon-figures.com/batman05"

* Wheelchair parts

* Orthotics

* Custom grips/parts for walking sticks

* The back of my remote that's been lost since 2000

* Custom holders/stands for devices (modems,phones)

* Custom project boxes

...just for a start.

I don't think most people will have 3d printers in the future.

I think it'll be much more like photo booth shops: every walgreens/walmart/corner store can have one, as well as hobbyists in their garages.

The best use case I have dreamt up so far is replacing this annoying plastic guide that broke off my shower door. I have looked everywhere but cannot find a replacement. In short, I see your point.

I met a guy who bought a 3D Systems Cube - justifying it to himself (and his wife) saying he was going to use it to make toys for his kids for Xmas. It worked out great for that - then he realized that the broken part on the $250k+ printing press that was keeping it out of commission at work, and was unavailable because the manufacturer was in receivership, could also be easily enough modeled and printed out on his "toy". So he did, and it worked fine.

This printing press at work, was it a commercial 3D printer? That would have been quite ironic. (under some definition of "ironic")

Nope - it was some fairly specialized printer that printed onto thick corrugated cardboard to label packing boxes.

3D printers that print 3D printer parts are pretty much the whole idea behind RepRap - arguably one of the very first consumer/hobbyist 3D printer projects…

Whenever I see new 3D printers released or promoted, the main thing you see them model are functionally useless figurines and toys. I don't see a lot of people talking about practical applications. Although I can see its uses in rapid prototyping, which I do a fair bit of myself, I don't see a massive market on the horizon.

This comment makes me want to come up with a 3D printing startup; you've practically distilled it to the koan of the "next important technology". I felt the same way (meaning, as you do about 3D printing) about MP3s.

The big problem I see with 3D printer products for the home is that they're very slow. Pushing aside the fact that they won't always be slow (because swinging too early for the market is no better than swinging too late; both result in strikes), this is problem that can be solved at a consumer level by retail, the same way we don't have offset printers and copy machines in our houses but all know where to find a Kinkos.

Bear in mind that most people will never design a 3D model; most people can't even draw, and 3D modeling is harder. But that doesn't matter, of course, because some people can't help but 3D model things and will publish those models to places like Thingiverse.

I think 3D printing will really take off when startups develop ways to make them useful, not faster. People just don't have a good use case for them today, if they had, they'd simply wait for the machines to slowly churn out what they need.

For instance, when people can print out custom handset chassis and form factors to go with easily swappable electronic internals. Custom input devices. The printable stuff will have to integrate with electronics (or print them anew) as to make it useful in order for it to outgrow the current market of prototyping enthusiasts.

I'd really like though to be able to print a paperback for reading and then tear it down in the machine when I'm done so the material can be fully reused. That's the ebook revolution for me.

Actually, I agree with you. When 3D gets fast to the point of instantaneous and cheap and with fully reusable material, we could have really interesting things. Imagine a 'physical' computer. I issue some command in bash, and a little physical representation of a file pops out from my workstation, and it has built in sensors and input so I can interact back with my workstation by interacting with it. I could have actual printed pseudo-ebook-readers tied up as tabs in my web browser.

I think you were thinking as you were typing, since you reversed your position a bit, but faster 3D printers will make them MORE useful.

There are many things that are impractical to print as a result of how slow 3D printers currently are. But if they were faster, then you can make things as you need it, you can make things where you don't know what you need to pack beforehand, and you can make disposable things on demand.

Same with computers. Many of the software we use regularly now were considered impractical with much slower computers with smaller storage (spam filters, any 3D graphics game). By making them faster, a larger class of things were available to be made more useful.

In the far far future (say 30-40 years), if 3D printers were fast enough with good enough materials, some startup can make a physical dropbox. Never use storage again. Digitize what you want to store, and recycle the object. When you need it again, print it out.

I'd really like though to be able to print a paperback for reading and then tear it down in the machine when I'm done so the material can be fully reused. That's the ebook revolution for me.

You can do that right now. Buy recycled paper, print a book, read it, and put it into the recycle bin. Just think of paper in the same way you think of ink.

My personal opinion is that any mass consumer adoption will come some time after mass SME adoption: there are craftsmen and small businesses who have more frequent needs and can justify the investments more. They are currently used in prototyping labs or for niche hobbies, but not in most businesses who could use them.

I wouldn't expect consumer adoption soon if I don't yet see, say, small household electronics repair shops using a 3d printer to make spare plastic parts on the spot instead of keeping inventory or long waits for deliveries; or tacky accessory/imitation jewelry stores printing rings/whatever out of metallic substrates with custom sizes and coloring right after order, or stores that sell handheld items (any, from computer mice to firearms) offering to print custom grips to match your hand exactly.

If I'd want to do business with 3d printing, then I'd start with such B2B usecases; or wait for the "right time to swing" at consumer market after this professional market is already full.

By the way, "designing a 3d model" is out of pretty much any of these usecases, the model is either premade by others or generated by specific software from some scans/measurements; and there could be a lot of money in making this software or models for the many businesses that want to sell stuff, not design it. On the other hand, building stuff "on order" is speed sensitive as if you can do it with a waiting time comparable to, say, Starbucks, then you open up much more business models than if customers need to wait an hour for the printing.

There is a difference between "we can't think of functional uses now" and "nobody will ever be able to". Toys R Us are to a first approximation a store full of functionally useless figurines and toys ($14bn in sales per year). Increasingly kids will grow up limited by their imaginations, and not what is carried there.

My fridge is full of containers, all of which could be differently shaped and sized to better suit me. It is awkward sending people things in the mail that aren't boxy due to standardised mailing containers - again being able to print the perfect one would be great. My garden could do with some innovative shapes such as a structure I can put half above ground, half below and put various plants in various orifices, have water flow and be stored in useful ways that reduce maintenance etc. Child safety seats could match the children exactly as they grow. Edible printing could throw open all sorts of creativity. Furniture could be made to fit spaces exactly. Printed items don't have to be rigid, which opens up possibilities in clothing - non-functional trinkets at first, but later on perfectly form fitting clothing for the occasion.

The real question is what will never be technically possible, with a mild mixture of what will never be economically feasible.

I have a lot of practical stuff i've made. The fact is that 3d modeling with any precision is time consuming. The learning curve is STEEP, and open source modeling software is rarely intuitive, e.g. blender is absurdly complex. That is the thing holding back buyers. Modeling stuff is sketchup is great, but getting the measurements as you go requires lots of redundant measuring. Give me an intuitive, free solid-works clone and there will be an audience.

I think there's lots of 6 year olds that would think printing figurines and toys were a practical application for a 3D printer. Toy companies will be giving printers away so they can advertise downloadable plans for action figures after saturday morning cartoons so kids can re-enact todays episode with todays costume/pose/accessories.

I disagree that 3D printers are the new 2D printers and everyone will eventually have one. Lets think about 3d printing in the context of the rise of 2d printers.

Was the thing that held back personal printers the lack of things to print- at one point, likely. Did a massive influx of 3rd party things to print solve this problem? No. 2D printers were popularized because people had shit they needed to print- text documents to start with and later photos. They made these things themselves. Thingiverse was not the solution for 2d and won't be the solution for 3d.

The only reason Thingiverse gets mentioned is that its damn near impossible for anyone who isn't a specialist in the field to design anything printable. The software is too complex and physical items must be durable.

This say we solved the software problem. We still have the enormous problem that the vast majority of people are incapable of making cogent 3D designs. IE, customization isn't buying you anything other than the ability to emboss your name or make a slightly different iphone case. Really, name one item that the average Joe can customize that isn't kitsch. Here's my list: glasses and jewelery (and only the later with quite a bit of hand holding). You may name a few more, but they problem have integrated circuits or other components that are not printable (lenses, diamonds, etc).

Maybe 3D printers will one day be valuable for printing out replacement parts; perhaps this is true. You'll take your broken whatsit to get 3D scanned and replaced. But of course, this business model may never come into existence due to copyright/patent laws. Even here, you will most likely get this done at your local kinkos because they will do it better, faster, and cheaper.

I don't foresee personal 3d printers becoming a thing, if ever. Perhaps in 20 years I'll look back on this statement in the same way that I think about "why would anyone ever want a personal computer". We'll see.

People don't see much demand in 3D printing is because we are accustomed to mass manufacturing as the way of life for consuming goods. Just like the Web created the "long tail" demand for goods and services, customized manufacturing will open the doors for highly personalized goods. Imagine printing a helmet exactly for your head or printing very comfortable Car seat for your body shape. There will not be the shortage of demand but because the technology is so new there is definitely a shortage in imagination for its potential uses.

Can you provide an example of anything like that being 3d printed and actually used? The only use case I currently see for 3d printing is prototyping and very, very simple fixes(e.g. clips for chip bags). Sure there's various types out there used in one off manufacturing scenarios, but what home user needs anything like that?

Traditional manufacturing processes produce higher quality parts and are more cost effective for most things you'd use a general purpose 3d printer for.

That's the nature about the long tail of things: not everything you see will be personally appealing to you. In fact, only a tiny sliver of all possible things will be appealing to you.

The mistake that many people make (not necessarily you), is when they ask for examples of appealing or useful 3D printing, and if your example doesn't appeal to them, then they write off the entire long tail of things to 3D print.

It's much like you asking your friends what movies they like on Netflix, and the friends answer "Home Alone" and "Elf". Since you don't like those movies, you can't imagine there being any other movie on Netflix you'd like, and write off all movies.

3D printing for the masses is so new that no one's seen much of the long tail, and there are things to be printed that are not yet explored.

It's much like you asking your friends what movies they like on Netflix, and the friends answer "Home Alone" and "Elf". Since you don't like those movies, you can't imagine there being any other movie on Netflix you'd like, and write off all movies.

That doesn't really make sense. It's more like the early days of Netflix streaming where people were reluctant to sign up because the selection of movies on there was actually terrible. I didn't touch it for a couple of years despite having access through a Netflix membership, because I couldn't find anything on there I wanted to watch.

The fact is that right now most examples of 3d printing are not that great. People at Maker Faire print out giant dodecahedral hats - admittedly to showcare the alrge print area rather than their taste in headware - or the occasional hard-to-find part. But most of the lower-end printers still produce output that looks highly pixelated, and the properties of the plastic used mean that many items have to be printed with additional structural support. What people see at the moment is like an inkjet printer (good) that can only produce output in Comic Sans (bad) and at low resolution (worse).

The exciting thing about patent expiration is getting around some of the resolution problems. People expect plastic to be smooth, not to look like miniature lego. Ideally you want to be able to print stuff of similar quality to a model aircraft kit. Right now it's OK for large, somewhat clunky items.

What I'm pointing out is the mistake people make extrapolating from very few data points about the space of possibilities now and in the near future in a long tail of possibilities for 3D printing.

Per your example, It may very well be that nothing in the long tail of things to make with a 3D printer will appeal to you right now, and not for a long time. You may very well be a late adopter. But that doesn't mean that the entire space is useless, and of all the possibilities of things to 3D print, none of them will be useful or appealing to you personally. However, it will SEEM that way to you, since, by nature of a long tail, only a sliver of it appeals to you. Until that sliver gets discovered, by yourself or someone with more imagination, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that nothing will be appealing, given the samples you've seen so far.

You're not understanding me, or the issue.

If the long tail is only a sliver, then people won't buy the actual printer, they'll purchase what they require from a 3d printing supplier that can deliver decent quality. there's no long tail for dot-matrix (impact) printers, for example; people who needed one got one, but most people rightly sat it out until better products were available.

I think prototyping will remain a big thing for 3d printers for a while. See eg the hexbright project [1]. Similar to how you could print a (poor) proof on a 9-pin matrix printer from your dtp program before you sent it somewhere for laserprinting/printing (the laser printer would be a commercial cnc or 3d print service).

Other than that, I could see myself using it for "throwaway plastic stuff" - coasters, maybe (novelty) cups/glasses (for parties) -- and for replacement parts, as others have mentioned (for those plastic things that always breaks and can't be replaced except by replacing the entire thing it came with).

I could also see the community coming up with some standards -- like lenovo/thinkpad has standards for peripherals and covers -- so could boxes for 2.5/3.5 slide in closures for harddrives etc. So you could print (or build) a mini-itx case with as many 2.5" front-loading slots as you needed for your own dyi nas etc.

[1] http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/527051507/hexbright-an-o... (around 1 minute into the video)

Another thing: I remember disassembling and re-assembling my G.I. Joe action figures as a kid (mixing and matching arms, torsos, heads and hips/legs). I haven't seen any models for such simple action figures yet -- but they really shouldn't be to hard to make -- all you'd need to assemble one was a single screw and a rubber band to hold them together.

Couple it with the strides made in 3d character (facial) modelling -- and you could print out parts, paint with hobby/miniature paint and have your very own action series...

I'm a bit worried about this thought of the success of 3D printing depending on people getting tons more "throwaway plastic stuff".

Agreed. It would be nice if it was possible to easily recycle the plastic for use on-site.

Recently a 3D printed Jaw bone was surgically planted in one patient.


Medical field will have large number of applications.

Why would you need a home 3d printer for that?

I agree with you that 3D printer is not a consumer item like a microwave oven or a dish washer. At least not for few hundred years until we have molecular level replicators like in the Star Trek. But it's going to be a great thing for creators and educators. But Definitely not a "consumer item".

Personally, I've got Raspberry Pi cases and Arduino cases made on 3D printers. I've got friends with projects like pan/tilt camera mounts for quadcopters, searchlight mounts for their car roof, telescopic sight mounts for guns, indicators for motorcycles.

There's some (not terribly regularly updated) objects printed at my local hackerspace here: http://hackerspace.pbworks.com/w/page/45077090/Up!%203D%20Pr...

The case for my pi is 3d printed as well, but this is what I would consider the typical use-case for these devices: one-off prototype/hobby projects.

There are shapes that can't easily be generated with traditional manufacturing processes. For instance, with 3d printing you can make a fully assembled crescent wrench. Traditional methods require you to make 3 parts and put them together.

I can't say what it will be useful for, but it opens up a lot of new design shapes. It'd be pretty shocking if that didn't result in anything useful.

Ohh, I agree that there's plenty of uses. You have to look no further than the Lexus LFA's chassis to see what 3d "printing"(woven in this case) technology can do.

It's just that 3d printers aren't going to revolutionize manufacturing or whatever it is that armchair pundits say about them. They have a place, but it's not sitting next to your microwave in your kitchen where you can download wrenches off the internet and print them into existence(and have them be at all useful). They are useful for hobbyist projects, for rapid prototyping, and for highly specialized work where traditional manufacturing isn't feasible(e.g. biomechanics).

Okay, I'll bite.

One in obvious production would be dental fixtures and fillings--there are already CNC devices available.

Another would be sex toys, or for auto shops.

Of course, the follow-up question; in what way is 3D printing superior to CNC dental fixture machines that already exist? Said CNC machines are already fast and small enough to fit into any dental practice.

Actually the biomedical field is one of those areas where I think 3d printing makes a lot of sense. It's one field where basically every part is ideally a customized one-off. Though, I doubt anyone would buy a home 3d printer for this use-case.

Yes, but do the currently available CNC machines fail to fill that need? How will 3D printing fill that need better?

There are a lot of shapes that milling alone can't do. For example, anything with a complex internal structure has to be cast, which comes with a few of it's own trade-offs. 3d printing can make complex objects without limitations(other than materials and time).

The problem is that even visionary people like you come up with such lousy examples as personalized helmets and car seats. If that's the "potential" then the market is dead already.

Great point.

It would be interesting to see a Hacker News Poll on how much people have and use 2D printers now even, let alone 3D.

It would be great to have access to a good 3D printer at a low price that was convenient at, say a Kinkos or something.

3D printers could well be more like good quality photo printers - something that is better used by lots of people at a shared facility.

PG posted a 3D printer poll about 3 months ago.

Poll: Do you have a 3d printer?

Yes, I already have one.

245 points

I don't have one now but I may buy one.

1767 points

I'll probably never buy one.

891 points

Thread: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5640988

Thanks for that.

It's hard to say whether that augers well for 3D printers or not. In what must be a big early adoption community only 8% of people have one but that 'maybe' group of 60% is huge.

Who knows, perhaps it will be like having a good workbench and tools. Not very rare, but far from ubiquitous.

I don't think there's any correlation between the use of 2D and 3D printers - they don't have much in common other than the name. I expect the use of 2D printers to be declining as more and more things are done online, but custom fabrication of objects is another matter altogether.

Well they both are things you might just order instead or buying the machine. I don't own a 2D or 3D printer, but I use services for both.

SupremumLimit is right. 2D and 3D printers are fundamentally different things. The analogies you can draw are pretty shallow. As someone that has a 3D printer, I feel this way, but at this moment, I can't quite put my finger on why, other than the things you print out with a 3D printers can be used to solve your problems, whereas pages printed on a 2D printer is used to transfer or hold information.

I think you just love your 3D printer - which is totally cool, but I actually think the comparison is quite apt.

There's a lot of people who love printing photos, flyers, etc. at the click of the mouse. We shouldn't demean that - there's a lot of real uses for 2D printing.

The own/rent/outsource question is a big part of the future of digital fabrication. See my article in MAKE:


You already have access to Shapeway's convenient 3D printers. There are thousands of objects already designed and you can design your own without that much difficulty. Why aren't you using them to make things? Why would it be different if the printer was at Kinko's instead of Shapeways?

The feedback loop at Kinko's would be quicker. If you had a broken widget you could take the widget to Kinko's, print a test part and then get the size just right.

But Shapeways, like online photo printing services might take a lot of the market when you know exactly what you want or want multiple copies or something.

The (missing) step between taking the widget to Kinko's and printing the test part is the time-consuming design phase which will be the challenging part for most users. Also that phase is usually lengthy enough that the fab and ship time is not such a significant fraction of the entire process time.

I'm skeptical that 3D printer ownership or ubiquity is the impediment to their widespread use.

Yeah, it's going nowhere until there's something that people actually want to print. When somebody figures this out, though, it is potentially truly disruptive, not in the Clay Christensen sense but in the "whoa Nelly there go the assumptions we've based a good part of our entire industrial economy on" sense.

Agreed. Though times are different now, here's a great video about revolutionary 3D printers, from 1989: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpRDuJ5YgoQ

I bet you could find a video about cell phones from 1975 or so that people in 1989 were laughing at (or would have been if youtube were around then). There's a cycle to these things.

The same pattern has occurred since the steam engine: someone patents an invention, development is stalled while others wait for a couple of decades, and upon the expiration date all progress is unleashed forward.

Who still thinks that patents foster innovation?

The story of patents holding up steam is a myth, one that I believe was more recently spread by Boldrin & Levine's "Against Intellectual Monopoly" book. Here is a paper comprehensively busting that myth: http://terry.uga.edu/~jlturner/StrongSteamApril2009.pdf.

TLDR: Steam did take off after Watt's patents expired, but there is no causality because his patents claimed the condenser, which works in the exact opposite manner as the "expansive" use of high pressure steam. High-pressure steam languished initially because it was extremely risky. Ironically, Watt's patents probably encouraged work on high pressure steam because his rivals wanted to work around them.

However, it is a really well-written paper that provides fascinating insight into the technological atmosphere of that era, and I highly recommend reading it.

BTW, here's another paper from the same authors calling out Boldrin & Levine for further fabricating history when the above paper was bought to their attention: http://terry.uga.edu/~jlturner/WattAgainAug2009.pdf

Patents don't foster innovation. Anti-competitive behavior and ridiculous licensing requirements/pricing does.

Copyright extension is the foulest of all of such fosterers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_Term_Extension_Act

Are these patents really holding up the industry so much? Who holds them, and what kind of royalties do they demand?

Who holds them? (Slightly outdated)

Stratasys -506+ patents. no expirations.

Z Corp--150+ patents. I think 3d systems bought them out....

3D Systems- 930+ patents. I counted a few expirations as well.

VoxelJet- 100+ patents.

Links to relevant cases:




3D systems patent here: http://bit.ly/15avC8e 3D systems vs formlabs and kickstarter seems to be the most popular litigation case.

I'd be curious to know the royalties as well. The patents/companies have prevented individuals from building/sharing files. It's not clear about industry though.

Your reddit and wired links are about copyright litigation regarding things made with 3D printers, not patent litigation concerning the 3D printers themselves.

good point. I upvoted you.

3D systems hold them, according to the article. it also seems to imply that they only licenced to others under pressure from a court.

I remember 3d printing stuff happening at the MIT Media Lab in ~1997, and patents being the big block to anyone other than the professor and a couple companies actually caring about it (well, prices and that the vendor used patents to charge really absurd prices for everything). They wouldn't even license to other people from the same lab.

Virtual reality will explode in 1994 thanks to the expiration of key patents.

(I'm glad, 20 years later, VR finally is poised to take the world by storm thanks to Oculus. And 3D printing definitely will change the world in ways we aren't even predicting once a bunch of other factors meet in a similar way.)

A neighbor of mine restored a Mercedes luxury sedan from the 1950's. It was perfect. I asked him what he did to get parts and odds and ends that were surely unobtainable.

He shrugged and simply said "I made them."

He then showed me that he had a full basement and it was a fully equipped machine shop. The guy made things like fully functional steam tractors from scratch that you could ride on.

Anyhow, 3D printing makes it possible for much more ordinary folk to easily make things that were formerly cost prohibitive.

I'm pretty sure that, despite what the article says, Formlabs' 3D printer is based on stereolithography and not any forum of laser sintering. (Laser sintering involves using a laser to fuse plastic granules, whereas stereolithography uses a laser to selectively polymerise a vat of photopolymer.) It looks like most of the 3D Systems printers are also based on photopolymerisation rather than SLS, though they do apparently own patents in that area.

Formlabs is definitely not laser sintering.

I think the biggest hurdle isn't the hardware - it's designing things at home. Doing this is really non-trivial. I started a website for sharing models ( http://www.fabfabbers.com) - but so many have, and now thinking I've wasted my time. I think there's more of an opportunity in making software to make the 3D design process easier.

Printrbot was a disaster on kickstarter, hopefully they are getting better at on-time deliveries (the guy on the first picture of this article is the founder of that company)... they were almost 1 year late if I remember correctly

Is this hermanywong account a prompter for qz.com? 19 of hermanywong's 31 posts are for qz.com with no comments.

I'm with Quartz, as another commenter below notes. I usually spend my time here reading and posting some stories. Am working up to commenting.

Add this to your HN about box.


Put more please - your contact email, a brief explanation of what qz is (with URL), and a mention that you mainly post stories from there. I am fine with using HN for this purpose, but it should be fully transparent, and you really ought to have done this before posting anything.

Hey thanks for the reply and have made additions. In the long run, I'm hoping not just to post so much of our stuff, which I do because I read them all day, but actually contribute since I get a lot out of reading other people's postings.

Annoyance: on an iPhone the mobile site has some sort of custom scrolling hysteresis which makes it behave differently from any other mobile site. The difference is enough to make the site unpleasant to use.

Thanks for the feedback. Our engineering team is actually really good about hearing people out seeing what can be done. The head of that team is @donohoe on Twitter. Also, they have a tumblr that explains the choices they've made: http://open.qz.com/ I'll also forward along your comments.

He's the social media editor for qz.com.


Looking forward to the explosion of 3D printers that can use some kind of liquid metal, and then make metal stuff.

Well then, your wait is nearly over. Although it isn't liquid metal, its powdered metal. Laser sintering is a process whereby you take a material in powdered form, lay down a layer, and then have a laser heat it to malting at specific places (that is the sintering part). Then you lower and the platform and repeat.

There was a hobbyist sugar sintering printer which used a heated element to fuse sugar. Not as sturdy as metal but you can eat it :-).

Given the explosion of cheap Chinese made laser cutters on Ebay I'm sure they will be all over this new market. Most of the parts already exist in the form of a laser cutter anyway.

There is a YouTube video of "3D Printing of Liquid Metals at Room Temperature" [1], posted about a month ago. There is even a paper on the topic called "3D Printing of Free Standing Liquid Metal Microstructures" [2]. It will be pretty cool when this can be used for printing electronics amongst other things!

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ql3pXn8-sHA

[2] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/adma.201301400/ab...

Will these techniques allow for the eventual control over things like grain and annealing, or is this technique always going to be limited to the very basics of metal deposition?

That exact technique? Not in the least - it relies on indium/gallium/tin/whatever alloys that are liquid at room temperature and immediately form thick oxide skins on contact with air. Even when solidified, they'll have mechanical properties resembling wet toilet paper!

SLS/DMLS, however, can give quite a bit of control over the grain structure. The solidification rate of the melt-pool is generally very rapid, giving small and homogeneous grain structure, but there can be all sorts of problems with residual stresses in the part.

Completely with you on this =)

I'm a bit of a 'metal-fanatic' - I think lots of everyday objects should really be made from some suitable metal, simply because that would make them last much longer. And sometimes thicker metal, too: I can't keep track of the number of times I've seen a metal thing break just because it was a bit too thin. A 0.5mm increase in thickness can make a substantial difference when we're talking about metal.

There's an aesthetic barrier, of course, since lots of people prefer more 'natural' materials, but I bet reliability-focused people won't mind.

(Of course, if the general user ever gets their hands on this, there would have to be very clear guidelines on things that definitely shouldn't be made from metal - e.g. obvious stuff like items you intend to shove into a microwave. There's the problem of unintentionally dangerous things (not just intentionally dangerous things like guns) coming out of 3D printers, especially metal-based ones.)

(Also, a huge question is what kind of metal, since there's obviously massive variation there.)

There are commercially available printers that do metal printing.


Laser sintering is already used for metal printing by melting metal powder. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHaXX2OoOs4

The article is mixing stereolythografy and laser sintering.

When the patents of laser sintering will expire the laser scanner still has to be very accurate. And accurate laser scanners are expensive even without patent.

It might be different for stereolythografy. With a good beamer high resolutions are possible.

But then there are materials. The resin used for stereolythografy is expensive because of patents. The powder used for laser sintering is expensive because of patents.

Hm, didn't know that the sintering patents were about to wear off--that's just plum interesting.

To me neither patents nor price (of the printers) are actually holding back. I just can't search for "$product print spare part $frob" on the web and get relevant results.

I fear nothing will change because a) there will never be relevant b) _standardised_ results and file formats (use with any consumer printer) c) DRMed results not any cheaper than the "real" thing. Or anu combination of those.

Probably because nobody other than a narrow subset of the nerd community uses the word 'frob' or expects anyone else to search on it.

At least one firm has already decided it's cheaper to give away schematics for certain parts than to manufacture and ship them: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4568043

Right now, all 3D printers print from STL files. There's no standard body, as far as I know, but there is a common file format.

"There's no standard body, as far as I know, but there is a common file format."

Well, for me a file that only contains coherent triangles is the closest thing to a standard that could be in 3D.

I have to agree with lots of others here.

Reduced costs of parts and sub-assemblies combined with an abundance of open-sourced knowledge have provided the tipping point to the recent explosion in 3D printing.

Patent worries only stifle innovation in larger established companies with more to lose than to gain.

Formlabs isn't a sls printer. Shapeways rent EOS Printers not 3D Sys' (and that's nothing to do with their 2weeks delays...).

I believe every middle class home in the world will eventually have three printers; paper, plastic, and extruded metal. The things they will produce:

1. Toys 2. Parts 3. jewelry molds, then jewelry. 4. medical devices(print out a catheter in the middle of the night.) 5. Eventually, electronics. 6. Once metal printers become better, and lower priced the race will be on. We will read about the first mechanical watch printed on this site--then it will be the first radio? 7. Physibles will be a go to site?

Who are these middle-class families that have such a need to manufacture their own jewelry and catheters? If you need a catheter, wouldn't you want to talk to a doctor first?

> Who are these middle-class families that have such a need to manufacture their own jewelry and catheters? If you need a catheter, wouldn't you want to talk to a doctor first?

Doctors prescribe catheters, but, as I understand it, you typically get them, once prescribed, from a medical supply house. Print-at-home could be useful in certain situations.

And, of course, people don't need to go to a doctor for anything connected to jewelry.

> A printer good enough to print glass lenses would be useful for some areas of the developing world.

People in the developed world still wear glasses, too, and being able to replace damaged lenses at home would be convenient.

Having once had a catheter installed, it's about the very last thing that I would want to have printed out - I really can't conceive of a worse example. In that situation I'd rather 3d print a bucket and wait for the higher-quality manufactured part to arrive.

People who use catheters correctly under medical supervision can sometimes run out. Being able to print one seems like a useful function of a 3d printer.

Will printers ever be good enough to print contact lenses?

A printer good enough to print glass lenses would be useful for some areas of the developing world.

People here need to lay off the 3D printing kool aid. The examples of useful things that the Joneses are going to print at home is a joke. I've been working with 3D printers for over a decade now. They are good for 1 thing only.


Even the $500K printers we have at work, can't compete with the quality of mass produced injection molded parts. And some of the ideas people are talking about like home printing medical devices, radios, and other electronics have been watching too much Star Trek.

Over the past 10 years, the printers have gotten better, but they are not following anything close to Moores Law in terms of speed, quality, and cost improvements. In 2 years, we are not going to have Star Trek replicators. In 40-100, maybe. Until that time comes, home 3D printers will only be making cheap plastic junk like figurines.

Not going to happen. Catheters are probably the worst thing to try and 3d-print.

201X: The Year of the Personal 3D Printer

Does this mean we should.expect a flood of novelty plastic trinkets?

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