Recently, scientists figured out how to 3D-print delicacies from chocolate, keeping the fats from separating after the ingredients were liquefied and squirted from a nozzle. That opened the door for wild culinary engineering, Type A founder Andrew Rutter says. We'll create a future in which people can bulk-buy enough food particles to last a year, stick them in the freezer, and then 3D-print all their own meals. Decades from now, Rutter says, we'll send an expedition to Mars with three days' worth of provisions, and through 3D printing, allow them to convert their own feces back into food. This is the sort of optimism that pervades the 3D-printing movement right now, and the future it posits is as ridiculous as it is wonderful, one in which shit can become space food.

In other words, the machines that make today's slow-growing cups are distant cousins of the machines that will transform the food industry, undercut the factory system, and make space exploration possible. We might only be 10 or 20 years away from all this future amazement. It basically means modifying the existing technique (squirting out a product, one drop at a time) and replacing the liquid substrate with edible protein, or sugar, or ceramic. Enthusiasts say the sweep of this technology could be boundless.

Unless, of course, it gets choked off, right as it's starting to bloom.


Type A printers labor on slow-growth cups.
Mike Koozmin
Type A printers labor on slow-growth cups.
Mike Koozmin

It turns out the story of 3D printing is actually about two tech culture sensibilities being locked in combat. On one side you have the open-source inventors who want to make all their designs accessible to the public, so that everyone can help improve them and all can benefit from them. On the other side, you have the more traditional inventors who want to patent their ideas so that others can't steal them. That mentality prevailed in the '80s, when people like S. Scott Crump — the co-founder of a large company called Stratasys — first developed 3D-print technology, but, for one reason or another, never brought it to the market. Instead, Crump and his colleagues designed big, gorgeous, prohibitively expensive industrial printers that they only sold to architecture firms and university engineering departments. The early 3D-print manufacturers owned and controlled a piece of mind-blowing machinery, but they kept it under wraps. (Crump declined to be interviewed for this article.)Only in the last few years did a peculiar convergence of factors — the rise of Silicon Valley start-up culture, the popularity of do-it-yourself "maker" craftsmanship, and the expiration of certain key patents — allow the industry to blossom. Because San Francisco is the current epicenter of tech entrepreneurship and the open-source Internet community, it stands to be the locus of this next design revolution as well.

That's why 3D printmakers in the Bay Area shuddered when they heard that Stratasys, based in Minnesota, had filed a patent complaint against a younger, rising competitor. It seemed the grandfathers of the industry had come back to reclaim technology they thought was rightfully theirs.

And Stratasys has a powerful weapon at its disposal. Its lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in November, lays claim on five patents for "extrusion of materials in additive layers to form 3D objects" — which is, essentially, the foundation of 3D printing. If those patents mean what Stratasys says they mean — that anyone who uses squirt-and-layer technology is essentially stealing from S. Scott Crump — then the entire industry could be imperiled, says Michael Weinberg, vice president of the D.C.-based digital advocacy group Public Knowledge.

"I don't want to sound alarmist about it," Weinberg says. "But if you take the complaint on its face, then the patents seem to read onto every desktop 3D printer that uses that technology." Meaning, basically, all of them. If Stratasys' idea is to kill a whole bumper crop of potential competitors at once, then this is certainly the way to do it.

Alexander admits he's scared for the industry. If Stratasys manages to lay claim on this technology, it could levy a tax on any company that wants to use it. That would raise the cost of 3D printers, inhibit regular people from buying them, and strangle the bedroom-manufacturing revolution that Alexander and his colleagues envision. The post-post-industrial future would be ruined by one of history's oldest businesses: the protection racket.

The founders of Type A are determined not to let that happen. If need be, they'll beat patent-holders at their own game.


Walk down the long corridors of any Silicon Valley semiconductor company and you might see wall upon wall of polished picture frames, each containing a paper signed and stamped by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This is "the patent gauntlet," and insiders say they enshrine the most fatuous part of the high-tech industry: the owning of rights to ideas. Companies treat patents as legal tender in a world where ideas are currency, bedecking their halls with recipes for software systems, or blown-up photos of silicon chips, or signed deeds for computer systems that have long been shelved. At the Sunnyvale headquarters of Rambus, Inc. — a company that specializes in suing other companies, but manufactures no actual products — the patent gauntlet seems to stretch on for miles. It contains some 1,700 framed plaques, each representing a separate piece of technology that Rambus somehow acquired.

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4 comments
sfreptile
sfreptile

This is really not the next big thing.  Building a clay model or prototype is still faster.  A milling machine can take a block of say aluminum and make an engine.  Try that with plastic.  This is a tinker toy.  And why shouldn't there be some patent protection if it is such a great idea? 

microcapfun
microcapfun

<<That mentality prevailed in the '80s, when people like S. Scott Crump — the co-founder of a large company called Stratasys — first developed 3D-print technology, but, for one reason or another, never brought it to the market. Instead, Crump and his colleagues designed big, gorgeous, prohibitively expensive industrial printers that they only sold to architecture firms and university engineering departments. The early 3D-print manufacturers owned and controlled a piece of mind-blowing machinery, but they kept it under wraps.>>


The author is very confused and very wrong about the history of 3d printing - and the article is ridiculously stilted against patenting inventions.


micro

kloro2006
kloro2006

@microcapfun  


property is not a god-given right. or, more concretely, society is not obliged to protect any individual's rights, unless reason itself demands that it do so for its welfare. i suspect this rains on yr parade, pal. sorry 'bout that. (and yes "its own welfare" can be a slippery slope, but one for which the notion of God-given rights and similar do not provide relief.)

please respond to this if you think it might further discussion of a very important topic.

 
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