Would 3D Printing Be A Disruptive Technology Today Without A Strong Patent System?

The simple answer is—unlikely. 3D printing provides one of the latest examples of the continued need for a robust patent system to enable and promote the development of new technologies. Similar to many other technological advancements, it is unlikely that the early 3D printing companies who helped create the 3D printing market would have received the necessary funding or protections to survive and prosper during their early formative years without a strong patent system. Patents enabled these start-up technology companies to receive the funding and protections necessary to spur the growth of their new technology and the creation of a new market.

The fundamental backbone of a patent system is the tradeoff between rewarding innovators with a monopolistic right to motivate them to develop new technologies on the one hand while on the other hand to control the monopoly to a limited period of time. Of course this also requires the inventor to teach others how to use the new technology so the public can take advantage of the invention once the limited period of time expires.
3D printing is not the only industry where patents have been an integral part of a technology's development. Computers (including the multitude of systems they control and operate), medical devices generally and pharmaceuticals are just a few of the other technologies that have benefitted and received funding at least in part because they were able to protect their ideas or intellectual property through patent rights. Increased funding promotes faster technological development and improvement.
The Constitution itself provides the authority to the government to issue the limited time monopoly to deserving inventions. Without this exclusive right, it is unlikely that investment would occur in research and development of a new technological advancement. The monopolistic right, even though only for a limited time, provides an entity with the ability to bring the technology to the marketplace, as well as refine and improve the technology with follow-on inventions. Patent laws protect the technological market created by a company's new inventions. During this limited time the company can exercise its exclusive right to practice the invention and learn how to refine and improve on its operation. These refinements and improvements may themselves be patentable and afford the innovator even further protection of the technological market it created, putting even a greater distance between the innovating company and its competitors. Patents may also cause competitors to develop different ways to create the same end products that may themselves be patentable and further broaden out and develop that particular technology.
Not surprisingly, early patents describing a new technology tend to relate to the overall operation of the new system. This broad-based patent approach is then typically followed by patents that are focused on either refinements to the operation of the system or on various aspects or portions of the overall technology. A macro look at the patent portfolios of two of the early 3D printing companies further evidences this sort of lifecycle of the patent landscape for new technologies.
Many have credited Charles Hull as the originator of the additive manufacturing technology that has become known as 3D printing. Mr. Hull is the sole named inventor on U.S. Patent No. 4,575,330 ("'330 Patent") that is believed to be the first U.S. patent directed to 3D printing and was filed back in 1984. According to the Patent Office's records, the '330 Patent was assigned by Mr. Hull to his believed to be employer at the time, UVP, Inc., which was a company that manufactured ultraviolet products. Mr. Hull formed a new company shortly thereafter in around 1987 that became known as 3D Systems. 3D Systems created and developed the stereolithography process that solidifies thin layers of an ultraviolet (UV) light-sensitive liquid polymer using a laser to create or build the 3D products.
Mr. Hull is a named inventor on over seventy-five different U.S. patents related to 3D printing and the company he formed, 3D Systems, has over two hundred fifty different U.S. patents in the 3D printing space. Mr. Hull's initial '330 Patent related generally to an apparatus for production of a three-dimensional object. As expected, over the last 30 years the more recent patent filings of 3D Systems relates to particular aspects or operations that occur during the stereolithography process to create a desired 3D product. For example, U.S. Patent No. 8,568,646 ("'646 Patent") recently issued to 3D Systems and is entitled "Compensation of actinic radiation intensity profiles for three-dimensional modelers." Presumably, the '646 Patent is much more focused on a particular aspect of 3D printing (compensating for radiation) compared to Mr. Hull's '330 Patent directed to the overall general apparatus.
Shortly after 3D Systems entered the market, other entities began to emerge as well. One of those companies was Stratasys, which was formed by Scott Crump who is credited with developing the Fused Deposition Modeling ("FDM") 3D printing technique. Unlike stereolithography that utilizes the UV sensitive photopolymer and a laser to create a 3D object, FDM technology utilizes ABS material that is melted at a print head which travels in a particular path to create a layer of material at a desired location ultimately building or creating the desired 3D object. The FDM print head operates on a principal similar to a hot glue gun to melt the ABS material and place it in a specific location to create the 3D product.
Mr. Crump similarly is named as an inventor on at least fourteen different U.S. patents related to 3D printing and Stratasys has over one hundred thirty U.S. patents in the 3D printing technology space. Mr. Crump's initial patent was filed back in 1989 and was also generally directed to an apparatus to create 3D objects. Mr. Crump's initial 3D printing related patent issued as U.S. Patent No. 5,121,329 ("'329 Patent"). However, more recent patents issued to Stratasys are focused on a particular aspect of the 3D printing process. For example, U.S. Patent No. 8,865,047 ("'047 Patent") entitled "Solid freeform fabrication of easily removable support constructions" is again more focused on a particular aspect of the 3D printing process (presumably fabrication of removable supports) than the general apparatus described in the '329 Patent.
While there are certainly additional 3D printing companies and other 3D printing techniques that have been developed since the 1980's, 3D Systems and Stratasys are recognized leaders in the 3D printing field and have developed and refined their stereolithography and FDM 3D printing techniques as well as others to help create the disruptive technology known as 3D printing. Both companies helped create this technology while amassing large numbers of patents. Their respective patent portfolios have enabled them to exclusively practice their inventions and create 3D products, albeit by utilizing different build techniques. In exchange for their exclusive patent rights, 3D Systems and Stratasys were required to explain their inventions to the public to enable others to now practice these inventions as some of their patents expire.
The 3D printing market will continue to evolve with new participants entering all the time with highly competitively priced 3D printers. In certain respects, these new market entrants may end up commoditizing the 3D printing market by increasing competition to help spur further technological advancement and applications for 3D printing. However, without the exclusive rights afforded to patent owners in the first place, it is unlikely that the early 3D printing companies would have obtained the financing necessary for their growth nor the ability to prevent others from freeloading on their inventions to create this new disruptive industry.
3D printing is not the only technology to benefit from a strong patent system. But, it does provide one of the latest examples of a technology that was born out of essentially nothing to become a disruptive technology. This transformation of 3D printing from being a "cool" or "neat" technology to a "distributive" technology occurred relatively quickly. Also, the pace of change in the 3D printing field is likely to only continue to move faster as more companies enter the 3D printing space and develop alternatives and improvements to existing systems. This is especially true as the limited period of time on the monopolistic rights afforded by some of the early patents in the 3D printing space begin to expire.

Author: Michael Pape