Jan.28, 2014

Today may be a milestone in the 3D printing revolution: one of the key 3D printing patents related to Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) technology expires today. The patent under question is that of Carl R. Deckard which was filed on May 31 1994 and issued on 28 January 1997.

Most U.S. patents expire after 20 years, but there is an exception to this rule for patents issued before 8 June 1995 (which is the case for Deckard's patent No. US5597589). Patent applications filed before this date have a term that is the longer of the two following options: either 17 years from the issue date of the application, or 20 years from the earliest filing date.

Carl R. Deckard's patent, US5597589, is a continuation or divisional application of previous patents filed before 1995 – namely, US5376580 filed on 10 July 1992, US5132143 filed on 21 June 1990, and US4863538 filed on 17 October 1986.

So, in this case, the shorter term is 20 years from the earliest filing date of the parent patent – if we consider the parent patent as the one filed on 17 October 1986 then the patent's expiration date would have been in 17 October 2006.

The longer term would then be the one 17 years from the patent's issue date of 28 January 1997 – which is today 28 January 2014!

This date would jibe with the prediction of Duann Scott, design evangelist at Shapeways, that SLS technology will open up in February of this year.

So brace yourselves folks: the 3D printing revolution is underway.

SLS is a low cost and high resolution 3D printing technology – hence its revolutionary potential.

Deckard's patent, "Apparatus for producing parts by selective sintering," includes the following description:

"An apparatus for selectively sintering a layer of powder to produce a part made from a plurality of sintered layers. The apparatus includes a computer controlling a laser to direct the laser energy onto the powder to produce a sintered mass. The computer either determines or is programmed with the boundaries of the desired cross-sectional regions of the part. For each cross-section, the aim of the laser beam is scanned over a layer of powder and the beam is switched on to sinter only the powder within the boundaries of the cross-section. Powder is applied and successive layers sintered until a completed part is formed. Preferably, the powder dispensing mechanism includes a drum which is moved horizontally across the target area and counter-rotated to smooth and distribute the powder in an even layer across the target area. A downdraft system provides controlled temperature air flow through the target area to moderate powder temperature during sintering.

Opinions differ as to whether the effects of the patent's expiration will be immediate or more gradual, but it seems clear that once this and other intellectual property barriers are lifted, competition will rise, and prices for the consumer will fall.

This has already happened with the 3D printing technology Fused Depositions Modeling (FDM). After the expiration of the patent for FDM, sales of these printers grew explosively, and its price fell from thousands of dollars to as little as $300 – with many of those inexpensive 3D printers being manufactured in China.

2014 will be an important year for 3D printing development. Another patent set to expire this year is the following:

Simultaneous Multiple Layer Curing in Stereolithiography
Filing Date: April 25, 1994
Issue Date: January 28, 1997
Expiring: April 25, 2014
US Patent Number: US5597520

Two other patents, US6007318 and US5554336, expire in 2015 and 2016 respectively.

Method and Apparatus for Producing a Three-Dimensional Object by Stereolithiography
Filing Date: June 5, 1995
Issue Date: September 10, 1996
Expiring Date: June 5, 2015
US Patent Number: US5554336
Holder: 3D Systems

Method and Apparatus for Prototyping a Three-Dimensional Object
Filing Date: December 20, 1996
Issue Date: December 28, 1996
Expiring Date: December 20, 2016
US Patent Number: US6007318
Holder: Z Corp

Other patents set to expire this year include 3 patents from 3D Systems (all SLA methods) and 6 from Stratasys which involve FDM, support removal, and optimization. The technology behind all of these patents promises to be an incredible boon for the development of 3D printing.

Thus, 2014 – and perhaps even today's date – may make the annals of 3D printing history.

Thanks to Jenny at Caret dash Caret for her great post on patents.

Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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Andres wrote at 5/31/2014 4:40:07 PM:

Completely agree with Thomas.

Thomas wrote at 2/2/2014 2:58:54 AM:

I kind of feel like saying "#%^* you Carl R. Deckard" for having kept this out of the public domain for so long. If there are laws about "crimes against humanity", shouldn't there be laws about "crimes keeping humanity back"?

Paucus wrote at 1/29/2014 11:07:24 PM:

"with many of those inexpensive 3D printers being manufactured in China" why is this phrase relevant?

nlancaster wrote at 1/29/2014 4:58:07 AM:

zcorp does not sinter the layers. they print a binder onto the powder.

Iain wrote at 1/28/2014 11:32:11 PM:

Isn't this the same process zcorp's colour printers use?

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