3D printers – from innovation to copyright infringement


3D printers have been around for a while now, although not many people own them. Not to be confused with Lenticular printing (which creates illusion of depth), 3D printing is a sequential process of creating three-dimensional solid objects of virtually any shape from a digital model. It is also called additive manufacturing wherein successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. Development of additive manufacturing processes began as early as 1970s (see selective laser sintering). Term 3D printing however, was coined in 1995 by two MIT students who modified an inkjet printer to extrude a binding solution onto a bed of powder, rather than ink onto paper.

What use can these machines be put to?

3D printing has many applications. Industrial use of this technology for rapid prototyping (quickly build a scale model using 3D modelling techniques) and research began during 1980s. Gradually, industries implemented it for rapid manufacturing and  mass production, using it just like other machinery. Twenty-first century saw steep growth in sales of these machines and fall in their prices at the same time – making it a potential household gadget. As these machines can create virtually any shape, hobbyists have been building creative things previously deemed to be possible to build only in factories. BBC one’s inside out show about “printing bicycle with a 3D printer“:



Apart from bicycles, we have seen action figures, jawbones, prostheses and even guns being made using these machines. Firearm models downloadable from internet and printable using a 3D printer is what an american online open source project called Defense distributed envisioned. Whether such technology should be made available to the masses or not is matter of perpetual debate, but it really suggests that 3D printing can be used for DIY projects. Instructables has such interesting DIY projects for that instance.

Recently, a British architectural firm proposed a building-construction 3D-printer technology that would use Lunar regolith raw materials to produce Lunar building structures. These lunar habitats would require only ten percent of the structure mass to be transported from Earth, while using local Lunar materials for the other 90 percent of the structure mass.

The patent issues

Additive manufacturing certainly has come a long way from what it was conceived for and lately there has been word of legal suits over patent rights. Last November, Formlabs – a 3D printing startup raised almost US$3 million from their Kickstarter project for affordable, professional 3D printer Form 1 they’re now selling on pre-orders. Notably, this was the highest funded tech campaign in Kickstarter’s history and one that provoked 3D systems to file a legal suit – perhaps the first of its kind. They sued both Formlabs and Kickstarter for infringing patent they hold for a stereolithograpy process (an additive manufacturing technology), which is common to Form 1 and some of 3D System’s high-end industrial machines.

With all this buzz about 3D printing, we can expect to see some remarkable innovation soon. The big question is, will such innovation be able to stand the opposition of copyright laws?

Source: WikipediaKickstarter projectDefense distributed

Featured image: 3D Printer at the Fab Lab
Keith KisselCC BY 2.0

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  1. Both copyright and patent issues come into play with 3d printing. Copyright covers modeling software, printer control software and firmware, designs, and the forms of objects designs are to replicate, such as, say, action figures in 3d gaming environments. Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group, has been working to develop programs that protect the growing 3dp community.

    See http://publicknowledge.org/issues/3d-printing

    The story above is concerned with patents and that’s actually a much more problematic area because some of the big market-controlling incumbents are seeking ways to extend their monopolies as the fundamental patents having to do with various forms of additive manufacturing expire. Strategies being used include claiming combinations of extensions plus established technologies as if these are not obvious, claiming convoluted methods of controlling 3dp hardware (and all functional equivalents, even though straight-forward), and putting otherwise open build materials in proprietary cartridges protected by patents and copyrights (think, HP print cartridges). In one notorious patent, Z Corp claims it is a patentable invention to sweep excess powder off the build platform into a “cavity” (such as a powder bin) as distinct from, say, onto the floor or onto the side of the build area.

    As a result of the patent claims exploited by these companies, a lot of open hardware that would be perfectly legitimate in the US–and not infringing anyone’s rights–is driven underground or off shore or simply abandoned, which apparently suits these companies just fine. However, using the patent system to bully the practice community is as reprehensible as the non-practicing entity trolls seeking to assert patent claims against commercial concerns. The result is a disruption of innovation and adoption rather than a promotion of progress in the useful arts. The EFF and the Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic are working to oppose new patent applications in 3d printing that are merely “orc” patents (h/t James Mason https://plus.google.com/103583939320326217147/posts/W2LAMZkwEWp) –that have little purpose other than extending monopolies and bullying the practice community with threat of expensive litigation on flimsy and unwarranted claims.

    See https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/10/join-effs-efforts-keep-3d-printing-open

    A Deltamaker FDM printer for $2K can do what a Stratasys printer can do for $15K, and at 25% the material cost of the Stratasys (except it can’t print a support material).

    An Adderfab powderbed printer can do for $500 in hardware and pennies per cubic inch what a Z Corp printer can do for $15K and $1 or more per cubic inch (except it can’t sweep excess powder into a bin).

    It is no wonder incumbent companies don’t want anyone practicing what the expiring patents teach.

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