In February 2014, key patents that currently prevent competition in the market for the most advanced and functional 3D printers will expire. Duann Scott, design evangelist at the 3D printing company Shapeways believes that the expiry of the patents on the technology known as “laser sintering” will allow for high quality, low cost products. Laser sintering can produce components that can be sold as finished products due to the high resolution.
At the moment it is only possible to buy expensive industrial-grade laser sintering 3D printers, like the machines used by Shapeways. This means that most designers, artists and entrepreneurs can’t afford the tens of thousands of dollars that current laser sintering machines go for. They then have to turn to companies like Shapeways which has a two week wait time to produce the goods that they want.
Scott isn’t just widely speculating either, fused deposition modelling (FDM) is a more primitive form of 3D printing and is the current king of low cost hobby 3D printers. The reason why is because of the explosion of open-source FDM printers that eventually led to iconic home and hobbyist 3D printer manufacturer Makerbot.
According to Scott a similar sequence of events involving the lifting of intellectual property barriers, a rise in competition and an eventual massive drop in price will happen with laser sintering printers. “As soon as the patents expired, everything exploded and went open-source, and now there are hundreds of FDM machines on the market. An FDM machine was $14,000 five years ago and now it’s $300.” says Scott.
Current inexpensive desktop FDM printers can not be used for mass production and the object that is created is only good for prototyping or something interesting to look at. Finished products cannot be produced straight out of desktop printer’s and require many hours of labour to produce a quality product.
The reason for Shapeways long wait time is because they can’t buy enough advanced laser sintering printers to keep up with demand. 3D Systems creates the 3D printers for Shapeways and they have a 12 to 18 month wait time for delivery of them.
In the next couple of years, 3D printing might become the manufacturing revolution that some have come to believe will happen with the additive process.
Check out the video below of laser sintering technology.