Since 3D printing spawned from that same high-tech ecosystem, some industry watchdogs worry that it, too, will get subsumed by the patent trade — that licensing companies will buy the rights to each new innovation, and then extort smaller entrepreneurs for profit.

"That's what happens in a lot of industries as they mature," Julie Samuels, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explains. "We saw it with semiconductors, with software, with smartphones. The technologies develop, and then people try to make more money out of them, and then one party [gets] the right to all the patents and goes after everyone."

In fact, many of the early 3D-print machine inventors opted to carve out their intellectual property rights long before they'd even commercialized any products. These were guys who envisioned the current print revolution long before they had the computer technology to produce it. Many of them are now CEOs of big companies, watching younger rivals build off their ideas. In many senses, they laid the foundation for an industry that's now trying to upstage them.

Bryan Allen and Stephanie Smith are designing future houses in the woods.
Juan Pardo
Bryan Allen and Stephanie Smith are designing future houses in the woods.
The Echoviren is the largest edifice ever printed by desktop machines.
Courtesy of SmithAllen Studio
The Echoviren is the largest edifice ever printed by desktop machines.

In the 1980s, an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin patented the technology for selective laser sintering, a low-cost way to fuse plastic and metal particles into finished products. The university licensed its sintering method out to companies for decades, creating the first student-owned enterprise to be spun from a university. After those patents expire in February, the cost to make a laser sintering printer should decrease, Rutter says. Money saved at the supply end means more competition in the market, which will ultimately benefit consumers.

"It's possible for one party that owns all the right patents to squelch a whole industry," Samuels explains. "Sure, technology is feisty — especially really great, awesome technology like this — and it's going to be stronger than any single bad actor. But I do worry that abuse of intellectual property laws will slow down its development."

Samuels' beefs represent a common line of argument in the open-source community, whose members blame the early inventors of 3D printing for keeping the industry dormant.

Yet the inventors of 3D printing weren't exactly rushing to make their innovations universally accessible either. British mathematician Adrian Bowyer, who is best known for inventing a 3D printer that prints itself, says that the cheapest machines still went for about $40,000 in the early aughts — roughly 20 times what they cost now.

"There were only 12 companies selling them, and they had all the patents," Bowyer says. Because their clientele was limited to large corporations and universities, they charged what the market would bear.

It wasn't until a couple years ago, when lean start-ups like Type A Machines and MakerBot began popping up, that 3D printers actually became a viable retail product, something that the average consumer could buy and use to fabricate sculptures or toys. Bowyer created an Internet forum called RepRap, through which he and his colleagues published design specs for new machines, or software components, or extrusion methods, so that no one else could patent them. Machines that had previously belonged in large firms or universities were suddenly rendered hip and affordable.

Reading the tea leaves, it was inevitable that the forefathers would come back to reclaim their ideas, Samuels says. And if they couldn't beat the younger start-ups on creativity, they'd pursue a legal avenue. For people familiar with high-tech industries, a spate of acquisitions, followed by a rash of lawsuits, seemed virtually inevitable.

In 2012, an older-line South Carolina company called 3D Systems sued its Boston competitor, Formlabs, alleging that the younger company had filched its decades-old technology for using light beams to harden particles into solid objects. The companies are currently in settlement talks.

The Stratasys suit, which could be far more devastating, came exactly a year later — right after Stratasys acquired a younger, hipper 3D desktop company called MakerBot. The acquisition showed that Stratasys was intent on buying up properties, but it also portended a cultural shift in the industry. MakerBot had been the archetypal DIY company, with a store in downtown Manhattan, and a CEO, Bre Pettis, who decried patent squatting. After the Stratasys sale, Pettis took a 180-degree turn, and began characterizing patents as "valuable business assets."

To Alexander, it's really no accident that the suing spree coincides with the buying spree, or that these older companies are dusting off their patent portfolios right as they try to consolidate an empire.

"Once that deal with MakerBot was finalized, that's when the [Stratasys] lawsuit was filed," Alexander says. He worries that Stratasys will repurpose its suit and deploy it against other companies, thereby seizing the industry.

Brown-eyed, baby-faced, equipped with an incorrigibly good-natured British accent, Bowyer has spent much of his life barricaded in mathematics departments or engineering labs. Now retired from the University of Bath in London, he's had time to ruminate on a scientific quandary that's bedeviled him since childhood.

Namely, self-replication: a practice that's abundant in the natural world, he says, but not quite possible for a human to engineer. Bacteria do it, Bowyer points out. As do yeasts, jellyfish, aphids, bees, and fungi spores. Microbial reproduction is so quick and efficient, in fact, that a single-celled creature can spawn a billion descendants in about 10 hours. Humans subsist by repurposing their own DNA. "We replicate about 60 percent of ourselves all the time," Bowyer points out, excitedly. "We live in a planet that's been knee-deep in self-replication since the beginning."

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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? 


<<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.




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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