Cool Invention: 3D Printer Patents

As 3D printing gains popularity, a debate rages about whether patent protection is beneficial for the technology. This fact matters for the industry because several patents are expiring, and companies are filing for new ones at a rapid pace.

3D Patents Are in Their Fourth Decade

3D printing technology and patents are not new. The history of the industry traces back to 1984 when Charles W. Hull first put in a patent application for stereolithography. Later that same decade, things advanced even further when S. Scott Crump, who was working for Stratasys at the time, invented fused deposition modeling. That’s the process by which material fuses continuously by later until a 3D object emerges.

Testing the Patent Debate

Whether patents encourage or discourage innovation has long been a central debate. Some argue that the license makes other companies, who which to compete in the same space, innovate to find a different way of doing the same thing.

One thing seems inevitable; patents for 3D printing continue to rise. With thousands of patents issued yearly on this technology alone, the industry is definitely increasing, and innovation continues to grow in tandem.

That’s not the only noticeable trend. 3D printing patents are also transferring from one company to another rapidly. Further, more patents are undergoing litigation.

That means that the 3D printing business is maturing, which will propel a few other trends in the coming years.

  • Most future tech in the space will rely on technology that is already patented.
    The costs associated with 3D patents will continue to rise, and royalty costs will move upward as well.
  • Patent directors at companies will need to monitor patent litigation and transfers to remain competitive.
  • Senior-most patent managers are responsible for monitoring the patent market for 3D printing patents. The reason is that it’s becoming increasingly likely that patent-assertion entities will buy up current portfolios to charge royalty payments on a broad range of innovations.

IP Law Is Not Keeping up With the Changes

The 3D printing industry is exploding, but the IP laws are moving at a slower pace. That means that the industry could face potential problems due to outdated laws. For example, it’s not entirely evident what happens when someone uses a 3D printer to print a copyrighted item.

Even more impressive, consumers at some point will be able to 3D print replacement parts for many protected designs and products. The law code will need to update to handle a wide variety of legal issues

What Does It All Mean?

For the consumer, all of this activity will result in excellent news in the form of lower prices and better technology. That follows the trend for most technical innovations. As the interest grows in offering commercial products, the patents rise as well. That leads to much in-fighting and litigation until clear winners emerge.

Nothing will slow down the industry, and ultimately, every other possible sector may feel the effects. That’s where things promise to get interesting. The 3D industry has come a long way since Charles W. Hull’s initial patent. The way forward will likely see more innovations as engineers and investors take on obstacles directly.

The biggest challenge will likely be how 3D printing impacts other product categories. There are already many examples of this disruptive tech forcing many changes in the worldwide industry. That’s unlikely to change, and patents will rise during the process. The patent assertion entities will likely be the most significant threat to innovation, so new companies in the space will need solid legal grounding.