This is an interesting one that was touched on a little recently when exploring why RepRap chose FDM and not another 3D printing technique. What sorts of patents have been granted against 3D printing techniques, and what sort of patent portfolios do the various players in the space have kicking around?
Lens is a great tool for exploring the largest body of open access research in the world, patents. It spans patents from across the world, and is also starting to cross reference that against publications in the academic world. So using the lens, I started with a logical place, looking for patents referencing three of the major 3D printing techniques.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
Selective laser sintering is a really neat technique because it builds up it’s own support material as it goes, it can print in plastic, metal and glass and has notched up 3343 patents referencing it (at the time of writing).
Some obvious names are lurking in the list of patent applicants, 3D systems and Zcorp. But what was interesting were the less obvious companies. Boeing has been applying for selective laser sintering patents since 2000. While Airbus has been making all sorts of fuss about concept aircraft, Boeing has been quietly chipping away in the background, doing all sorts of cool things like printing lightweight honeycomb materials.
General Electric also has a bunch of patents around jet engine manufacturing using laser sintering, which dates back to about 2003. Which is interesting since they are now actively acquiring additive manufacturing firms.
MIT and the University of Texas are the active U.S. Universities researching and patenting in the area, with the texans playing around with ceramics, while MIT has been playing around with printing organic compounds and pharmaceuticals.
There are 23 Selective laser sintering patents that have expired (up to 1993), and it looks like the University of Texas was first on the scene with laser sintering in the early 90’s.
Stereolithography uses resin that is cured by UV light. Hobbyist stereolithography printers are like the B9 Creator and the Form1 are just popping up on the scene. With the guys from Form labs getting sued by 3D systems for patent infringement. Stereolithography is referenced in 7650 patents.
3d systems features heavily again, but this time the results have more of a medical flavour (rather than the aviation of SLS). Applicants included 3M and what, micron technologies? It looks like Micron is using stereolithography as a way of positioning and stacking semiconductors. While 3M is creating capillaries inside filter cartridges.
MIT features as the major university patenting in the space, and is working around engineering human tissue using stereolithography.
It looks like 106 patents have expired, with 3D systems granted the first patent for stereolithography.
Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) or (FFF)
Fused Deposition Modelling (trademark owned by Stratasys), or FFF is the 3D printing process that you find used in most consumer 3D printers, from your custom built RepRap to your store bought Makerbot. Fused Deposition modelling is referenced in 1884 patents.
As you would expect, Stratasys and 3D systems again show up in the results en masse. Unfortunately, this search didn’t turn up anything else particularly interesting, as I guess since Statasys has trademarked the term, and nothing really exists under the more generic term. I couldn’t find anything that had expired either, but we do know that Stratasys was first on the scene in 1989. Which brings us to the next way of slicing and dicing this dataset.
What if we searched by company, rather than technique?
Stratasys features as the applicant in 506 patents, and they have 4 that have expired including the one around the general Fused Filament Fabrication, that our search above wasn’t able to find.
Their latest work, looks like a control system for regulating the flow rate of molten plastic.
Z corp (now owned by 3D systems) applied for 175 patents, and none have expired. Their latest work is using a vacuum for storing and transporting powered based building materials.
3D systems is the largest patenters in the 3D printing space. With their name featuring as the applicant of 932 patents. They have also had 60 patents expire and their latest work is printing with plastic of paris type materials.
Voxeljet showed up as the applicant in 106 patents, with nothing expired, and their latest work is a way of distributing powered based material where the excess is automatically reclaimed and can be reused in another print.
Even Makerbot, the once open hardware company is getting in on the patent bandwagon, holding a patent on a conveyer belt for automating and moving prints out of the way. Although some doubts have already been cast over the validity of this patent.
The cool thing about all this, and using the lens to dig around all this open access data. Is that you can browse through literally millions of dollars worth of research and development. I guess this is exactly why Elon Musk doesn’t patent anything for spaceX, and I kind of hope more companies take a similar stance in the future.
Cambia who build the lens is partially funded by NICTA. NICTA is also my current employer for my day time job. The views held in this post and my blog are my own, and are not reflective of any view held by Cambia or NICTA…
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