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The result of this lawsuit will have a major impact on the future development of desktop 3D printing.

Earlier this week Stratasys, a longtime fixture in the commercial/industrial 3D printing world and recent purchaser of desktop printer company Makerbot, announced that it was filing a patent infringement lawsuit against Microboards Technology, LLC, the company behind the Afinia H-Series 3D printer (for simplicity’s sake, in this blog post I’m just going to refer to them as Afinia).
SIP06_BuyGuide_AfiniaH479_cropped

This lawsuit is a big deal that could have huge ramifications for the entire desktop 3D printing industry. Afinia is a well known 3D printing brand which was named “best overall experience” in MAKE’s inaugural 3D printing buyer’s guide last year. It is also widely available from mainstream outlets such as Radio Shack.

Beyond Afinia, this lawsuit is important because it is not clear that anything in the lawsuit is Afinia specific. While it is very early in this process (more on that below), parts of Stratays’ initial complaint reads like it could be made against just about any 3D printing company, as well as 3D printing slicing software. That should make this lawsuit of interest to everyone who cares about desktop 3D printing.

The Patents

Before getting to the patents themselves, it is worthwhile to keep a few things in mind. First, all we have right now is Stratasys’ complaint. This is a document that is written by Stratasys’ attorneys and is designed to present all of the facts in a light as beneficial to Stratasys as possible. That doesn’t mean that there is anything untrue in the complaint, but it does mean that any claims made in the complaint (and, really, in any complaint) should be taken with a grain of salt.

USPatentOfficeSeal

Second, the complaint focuses on a handful of specific patents. These patents have been issued by the US Patent Office, but that does not mean that they are without flaw. Stratasys may be reading them more broadly than they really are. Additionally, Afinia may be able to challenge the patents in the course of a trial (if there is a trial) in order to eventually narrow or overturn them.

Third, patent lawsuits are expensive. Even if Afinia thinks that they are on the right side of these patents, it would likely cost them millions of dollars to successfully win a lawsuit. That might force them to settle even if they believe that they could eventually win the suit.

The ‘925 Patent

In its complaint, Stratasys identifies four patents it believes are being infringed upon by Afinia. The US Patent Office issues every patent a number but, for the sake of convenience and simplicity, in lawsuits the patents are often referred to only by their last three numbers. Thus, U.S. Patent Number 5,653,925 becomes simply the ‘925 patent.

Stratasys is alleging that the ‘925 patent essentially covers the process of controlling infill in a 3D printed object. Anyone who has used a 3D printer is probably familiar with the concept of infill. While a 3D printed object can have a solid interior, it does not have to. Depending on how you are planning on using the object, you may only need it to be 50% full in the middle, or 75%, or 25%. Stratasys claims that the ‘925 patent covers adjusting the rate of printing to create gaps in the infill.

Infill illustration from STRATASYS INC. Plaintiff, v. MICROBOARDS TECHNOLOGY, LLC d/b/a AFINIA

At least as described in the complaint, Stratasys is not concerned about something specific with Afinia’s implementation of the infill concept. Instead, it merely focuses on the fact that Afinia implements infill. That would mean – again, merely based on the Stratasys complaint – that any printer that uses some sort of infill control would be infringing. Even other software that makes the infill process possible could potentially be included in the patent.

The ‘058 Patent

Stratasys alleges that this patent covers the heated build environment, specifically the heated build platform. Heated build platforms help to avoid warping problems with many 3D printers. They are common on many 3D printers today.

As with the infill of the ‘925 patent, it does not appear that there is anything unique about Afinia’s heated build platform that runs afoul with the ‘058 patent. While there is an interesting discussion about ways to work around this patent here, as interpreted by Stratasys it is not limited to Afinia.

The ‘124 Patent

The ‘124 patent allegedly covers the extruder on the Afinia printer. To be honest, I’m not totally sure how broadly applicable this patent will be beyond the Afinia. It depends on how many unique tweaks exist in the Afinia extruder and how broadly applicable the language in the patent is. My suspicion is that the Afinia extruder is not unique enough to be the only one arguably covered by this patent, but I encourage you to take to the comments if you think otherwise.

The ‘239 Patent

Finally, the ‘239 patent allegedly covers a seam layer concealment method. Essentially, it is a way to hide the starts and stops of layers so that the seams are not as obvious. The image below, which is from the patent but was shown in the complaint, helped me to understand the seam layer concealment method claim.

Smaller_US08349239-20130108-D00006

Afinia’s software accomplishes this when it is preparing the model for printing, and then the printer executes it. As with the ‘124 patent, it is unclear to me if Afinia is doing something unique with regard to this. My initial suspicion is that they are not, but correct me in the comments if Afinia has implemented some great seam concealment tech.

What Does All of This Mean?

The broad ramifications of this lawsuit are pretty clear. We now have a lawsuit by one of the established commercial/industrial 3D printing companies against a desktop printer. Unlike 3D Systems’ lawsuit against Formlabs, Afinia uses the technology that is widely implemented by any number of 3D printers. No matter what it is, the result of this lawsuit will have a major impact on the future development of desktop 3D printing.

SIP06_BuyGuide_FormlabsForm1

The Form 1 desktop SLA 3D printer from Form Labs was the subject of a lawsuit last year from 3D Systems.

The more specific ramifications are less clear, and will depend on the specifics of how everything shakes out. That being said, there are a few questions worth examining. But, spoiler alert, I don’t have a good answer to the first two. Or for a bunch of other ones. Sorry about that.

Why Afinia?

As I mentioned above, it is not clear from the complaint that Afinia is the subject of this lawsuit because of some unique feature or element of its printer. This may become more clear as the community dives deeper into the patents in question (this RepRap community thread started by Have Blue has already started doing so), but for now it is probably safe to assume that Stratasys would argue that most desktop 3D printers infringe on at least one of its named patents.

Afinia has gotten some positive attention, which could have caught Stratsys’ eye. It won “best overall experience” from MAKE last year and was positively reviewed again in this year’s guide (that’s page 70 for those of you playing along at home). It has also struck distribution deals with companies like Radio Shack, which inevitably raises its profile.

All of this makes Afinia a relatively high-profile target, but not the highest. Afinia is actually just a US distributor of the UP Plus printer, but that doesn’t necessarily influence the equation. They have deeper pockets than some 3D printer companies, but probably not as deep as some. After all, 3D Systems is selling a printer that has many of the same features as Stratasys. Assuming you were looking for a payday, they are a much riper target (although for all we know they may already have a cross licensing agreement with Stratasys). More importantly, this suit is probably much more about stopping Afinia than collecting infringement damages.

Frustrating as it is, as of now it’s just not clear why Stratasys chose Afinia.

Why Now?

Stratasys has had these patents since the late 1990s, but until it purchased Makerbot had taken no steps to try and enter the desktop market. Assuming their patents cover printers like the Afinia, they could have rolled out a low cost desktop model a decade ago. But, for whatever combination of reasons, they declined to do so.

Afinia and UP printers during this year's 3D printing shootout weekend.

Afinia and UP printers during this year’s 3D printing shootout weekend.

So why sue Afinia now? It is obvious to anyone that the desktop market is exploding right now. Perhaps Stratasys decided that it was finally time to put an end to this desktop printing foolishness, or assert its control over the market. If Stratasys believes that IP infringement discourages companies from investing in innovation, as they claimed in their press release announcing the suit, why wait this long to bring it? Non-licensed printers have been integrating these features for years now – did Stratasys finally get so discouraged from investing in innovation that it decided it needed to sue?

When looking at timing, one must recognize that this lawsuit follows the finalization of Stratasys’ purchase of Makerbot. It would be interesting to know if Stratasys ever believed that any of Makerbot’s printers infringed on these patents. It will also be interesting to see if this makes it harder for non-Makerbot desktop printers to enter the market (or existing ones to continue to compete).

Or maybe it is just something about Thanksgiving that makes large 3D printing companies want to bring lawsuits. Last Thanksgiving 3D Systems sued Formlabs, and this Thanksgiving Stratasys is suing Afinia. If we get another lawsuit during Thanksgiving 2014, I’m calling a trend.

What Happens Now?

SIP06_BuyGuide_MakerbotRep2_pi_cropped

The MakerBot Replicator 2. MakerBot was recently acquired by Stratasys.

First, Afinia gets to respond. Remember, this complaint was drafted by Stratasys in the most favorable way possible. It is in Afinia’s best interest to craft a response that begins to punch holes in the claim. For the purposes of this post I have assumed that Stratasys’ patents cover everything they are claiming, but that could turn out to be very, very wrong. Keep your eye out for Afinia’s side of the story.

Then this suit will start moving towards trial. As I mention above, patents lawsuits are incredibly expensive. In addition to evaluating their chance of actually winning, Afinia will have to decide if the cost of a win would allow them to continue as a company. As with Formlabs and 3D Systems, do not be surprised if these companies enter into settlement talks. This is true regardless of how strong Stratasys’ patent claims turn out to be.

What Happens Next?

Perhaps more interesting, or at least equally interesting, is what happens next – what happens after a verdict is entered or the case is settled?

If Stratasys wins (or the case is settled), what do they do next? Do they sue more desktop 3D printer companies with the goal of driving them out of the market? Do they offer a license on their patents to desktop companies, effectively getting a cut of an entire market while letting it survive? What about people making software related to 3D printing? Are they immune?

scalesOfJustice

How do other desktop 3D printing companies react? Do they seek licenses from Stratasys? Do they start trying to innovate around the patents? Or does their funding dry up, forcing them out of business?

And what about RepRap and other open source 3D printing communities? In the US, a person building a RepRap that infringes on a Stratasys patent is just as much an infringer as company building a proprietary printer that infringes. Would Stratasys go after the RepRap community? That seems like a bad idea for all sorts of reasons, but plenty of bad idea lawsuits are filed every day.

Does this signal the end of an era of rapid desktop printer innovation, with a chilling effect descending over the community and industry alike? If so, will Stratasys be held responsible?

Questions Are Easy, Answers Take Time

As I wrote way back at the beginning of this post, this lawsuit is a big deal. It raises a number of fundamental questions about the future of desktop 3D printing. I have tried to note some of those questions here, but there are inevitably many more.

Raising the questions is easy. Answering them is harder. Some of them will be answered when people with an intimate technical understanding of desktop 3D printers start picking over the Stratasys patents. Others will be answered when this suit is resolved. And still others will only be answered in the aftermath of the suit.

Until then, keep your eye on this lawsuit. Your instinct that it is important – and bigger than the two companies involved – is correct. The last few years of 3D printing have been exciting, but they may have been built on a shaky foundation. Now we all have an opportunity to see just how strong this community has become.

Michael Weinberg

Michael Weinberg

Michael Weinberg is Acting Co-President at Public Knowledge, a nonprofit advocacy group that represents consumers on technology issues in Washington, DC. He is also also the author of a number of whitepapers including It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology and What’s the Deal with Copyright and 3D Printing? Follow him @MWeinbergPK


Related

Comments

  1. Brett says:

    There’s nothing quite like getting stabbed in the back with a 3D printed knife, now is there? I think Stratasys has enough money to leave the little guys alone. Work out some licensing deals with the big guys and let everyone have their choice in 3D printing. If not, the community will rage.

    1. Mike says:

      Patents must be enforced to remain valid. However, the law does provide for some level of infringement protection for individuals building things for themselves and non-commercial use. When it turns in to “business” which trips the need for patent enforcement is a call made by patent counsel to the patent holder and by no means is it a simple decision.

      As for what a patent “means” or “covers”, if it goes to litigation, the Markman Hearing is the pre-trial event which determines what the patent claims mean and what is covered by them.
      Until that is settled, *nobody* really knows what’s at stake here.

      N.B.: the language of patents only *looks* like English to the inexperienced; anyone who has been involved in patent litigation knows that it is anything but English. Patent attorneys spend careers and amass fortunes writing and interpreting the deeply bizarre language of patents, and amateurs are almost never correct in their interpretations. It is very easy to believe you understand things that you actually do not.

  2. Dan A says:

    Assuming the patent is good for 20 years, and was filed in 1995, isn’t it due to expire in a year? If so, wouldn’t the best strategy be to delay until the patent expires?

    1. According to the patents cited it looks like they’re set to expire between 2017 and 2029. Even if they could delay for the first one, they wouldn’t be able to delay until 2029.

      I wonder if this isn’t part of a specific strategy on Stratasys. They do have a number of 3D printing patents that expire in the near future. I wonder if their plan isn’t to scare as many other fish out of the pond as they can before their patents start to expire, shrinking the size of their hammer.

      Whatever their reason, all the good will I’ve had for MakerBot has evaporated. I’d rather give my money and support to companies without aggressive attack lawyers.

  3. Andrew Hyams says:

    I suspect this may be sabre rattling in an attempt to scare everyone off of desktop manufacturing. I don’t think they’ll want to settle, I think they’ll put them out of business and make an example out of them – to try to effectively patent and monopolise 3D printing.
    I recommend, if necessary, we crowdfund the defence case and make an example out of them – 3D printing should be open to all.

  4. AndyIII says:

    Never buy a Makerbot from Stratsys…noted.

    1. Rahere says:

      Indeed. There’s only one way to react to this and that is to boycott the abuser. Perhaps Make should consider whether it should still lend its name to the product and pursue them in kind for an identical amount under Tradesmark legislation?

      1. Jonathan says:

        Boycott the abuser, yes. Is Bre Pettis officially persona non grata in the making community? If not, perhaps the community should fix that.

        1. makomk says:

          Good luck with that. People have been compared to terrorists by established figures in the maker community just for holding Bre Pettis to the exact same standards on open hardware he demands from others, and they even had the cheek to claim they were taking a stand against inflammatory language whilst doing so. (Personally I’m still boycotting Adafruit over that incident.)

          1. Clay says:

            What did adafruit do?

    2. n2pat says:

      Dont they also own Thingiverse? time to find a good open source alternative.

      1. rooiejoris says:

        maybe youmagine… or git, but that is not so consumerfriendly [yet]…

        1. Brett says:

          Actually a GIT (github) powered website with some easy utilities for uploading (pushing) the files would be a nice open alternative. However each user would still have to have their own account and if the frontend website vanished the database of all other git repos (3d designs) would be scattered in the wind. A distributed system like bittorrent or bitcoins might be the way to go, but maybe you just distribute a database that catalogs all of the git repos that have files. I don’t like the idea of not having revision control via bittorrent though, and you’d still need some website frontend to serve as a tracker for all of the files. If the tracker regularly backed up the database and website source files and made those available via bittorrent every week, that would be a nice way to go. So to recap, bittorrent protocol for downloading and shared network load of the entire database and source code of the website, but the website just makes a pretty front end to a bunch of github (git) repositories that hold various design files. That way everyone owns their own files, and can update them independently of the main site… AND the main site is continuously distributed, so if it ever gets “sold for profit” the community won’t be very far behind from popping up a new site with the backup files. In fact, it would be wise to probably have several sites running at the same time, all autonomously backing each other up at night.

  5. unlike the patent suing frenzy that followed the hype around virtual worlds after 2007, these patents are for physical methods and not software patents. Virtual worlds PR and hype died as the realworld applications for the technology became more apparent. One can assume the same will happen with the 3d printing hypecycle formed by the people at Make, etc. … but these are longer held, more monetized patents… so “disruption” will follow a napster model much more than a google advertising model.
    sometimes you enable your worst nightmares,

  6. unclemymy says:

    Makerbot has gone over to the Dark Side. Wonder what BP knew about this before the big deal, or if it mattered. What are his current comments, I wonder?

    1. Brett says:

      I feel bad for Bre because you know he never intended for things to go this way, but as soon as the VC funding and acquisition by Stratsys took place you know he had to understand it was getting and respectively has gotten out of his control. Of course he won’t be able to publicly make statements about the legal case, and now every smile seen in every Makerbot video is going to be perceived as a 3-row deep great white. Will be interesting to say the least to see how this develops. Especially with HP coming into the market next year.

      1. prometheum5 says:

        Having met Bre and heard him speak, I don’t believe this for a second. Once MB became a ‘big’ company with the Replicator and started gaining mainstream momentum, I think this was absolutely the plan. Getting bought by Stratasys was good for both companies. Stratasys now has a foot in the home printing market where they can start throwing their weight around, and MB can be shielded from having to innovate/improve by running out the competition.

      2. Rawstock says:

        @bre had a choice. He made it.

        1. Ken says:

          If only Zach Hoeken wasn’t kicked out of MB. Every year I get more and more angry at MB for the crap that they do. I can only hope that these lawsuits were not the creation of the folks at MB but stratasys.

  7. Excellent article. It is interesting how Stratasys are now trying to “defend” their intellectual property in terms of 3D printing hardware, while on the Makerbot.com website — in the FAQ for their Digitizer 3D scanner ( https://s3.amazonaws.com/downloads-makerbot-com/digitizer/MB_DIGITIZER_FAQs_3.pdf ) — they very much side-step intellectual property issues with a throw-away comment: To cite the FAQ:

    ===
    [Q] What about intellectual property and copyrights? Does scanning something violate those?

    [A] The MakerBot Digitizer is a new technology in a new frontier. If you’re interested in reading more about how copyright and other IP topics, check out writings from the public interest group Public Knowledge.
    ===

    The MakerBot Digitizer is apparently all about “sharing” — scanning everything in the world and uploading the scans for everybody to have free access to on Thingiverse.com (which MakerBot set up and which Stratasys hence now own). Quite how this kind of pioneering attitude to intellectual property can square with a legal move that can sadly only slow the development of 3D printing is — to me at least — very unclear. Revolutions need enthusiasts as well as corporate pioneers, and Stratasys may actually find that their strategy here backfires if the grass roots community starts to boycott MakerBots and/or Thingiverse.

    1. Rahere says:

      Perhaps Thingiverse can be persuaded to bar Stratasys: David was there long before.

  8. Sylvain says:

    Well things are simple: for years, Stratasys was in the “rapid prototyping” business, and had a nice monopoly. When you can make profit while being lazy, why bother innovating?
    Then, some pioneers came and used technologies that were not covered by patents anymore to open a new field: personal manufacturing.

    Now that personal manufacturing *is* a thing, not thanks to them, Stratasys is there to reap all the work the community has done and small businesses have done. With that kind of backstabbing, it looks like the people from Makerbot have found a great match.

    What can you do?

    1) If you can, help invalidate the patents by digging-up “prior art”. Any publication, in any language, published anywhere in the World and describing the invention (even applied to other fields, eg. infill control of bricks for the ‘925 patent) prior to filling date can make the patents worthless and harmless. As a bonus, it would hit Stratasys where it *really* hurts, their crown jewels, their IP.
    This would be *much more* useful that giving money to any defense fund.

    2) Don’t buy anything from Makerbot or Stratasys. Do your best to prevent your company/school/hackerspace from buying their products. Give them a bad reputation. Express your opinion about what they’re doing when they have a booth in a trade show. Make sure their ear the message loud and clear even if they seems not to care. Stay civil, off course.

    3) Use a OSHW printer (one that can be easily replicated), participate in the community. As the loosing fight against file sharers has shown, no company can win against people exchanging and working between peers.

    1. MiggyB says:

      Is anyone here not looking from a hobbyist’s glasses? Stratasys invests nearly 10% of its revenues into R&D, continually trying to innovate. Why the hell would you stand by and watch others infringe your technology patents, whatever the size?!

      1. I look at 3D printing from both a corporate and enthusiast perspective, and while I take your point about a company wanting to protect its R&D investment, firms also send signals via their previous actions of what they are and are not trying to protect. For a great many years now, Stratasys has let many small firms build businesses based on selling thermoplastic extrusion 3D printers and has not moved to stop this. And now suddenly it is apparently moving in on those companies that established the low-end 3D printer market — a market it was not (until its purchase of MakerBot) even operating in.

        The patent system is far from perfect (just look at the mobile phone sector!), and especially so where very new technologies are concerned. Absolutely Stratasys should defend against companies stealing its core, high-end intellectual property (like the “Projet” material jetting technology it obtained when it purchased Objet last year). But trying to prevent others having a material extrusion printer with a heated bed, or infill, I and others believe crosses a line of reasonableness. I also find the move surprising given that Statasys has been reasonable in the past (at one time, for example, it owned the trademark on the term “3D printer”, but has allowed it to enter common usage).

        Right now, the 3D printing industry is a community as well as an industry, with everybody winning the more it expands and innovates into the mainstream. I guess all industries at some point need to grow up, and this may well be the moment when 3D printing transitions from its early community phase to a dog-eat-dog industry. But I think if this is the case, it is happening too early. The high-end market — as owned by 3D Systems, Stratasys, Arcam, ExOne, Voxeljet and a few other larger private firms — is not threatened right now by people extruding thermoplastics on consumer/prosumer hardware. So, while taking your point about intellectual property protection, I still think that this legal move by Stratasys is both sad and a potentially poorly judged market intervention at this time.

      2. makomk says:

        See, this is one of the problems with patents. I’ve been following RepRap development off and on for years, and essentially all of those things – the extruder designs, the fill patterns, the need for a heated bed – had been R&Ded by the community from scratch via numerous prototypes and quite a lot of careful thinking and experimentation over the years. They’re really not benefiting from Stratasys’ R&D, but it doesn’t matter because what Stratasys is claiming is so broad – for instance, Stratasys aren’t just claiming a patent on one particular set of fill patterns that they’ve developed, they’re claiming that their patent covers any software that allows you to select different fill patterns for 3D prints, no matter what the patterns are.

      3. makomk says:

        Likewise, the patent that Stratasys are claiming covers heated beds isn’t actually a patent on heated beds – the RepRap community invented those, not Stratasys – it’s a general patent on heating the build environment that they’re claiming stretches to cover heated beds. Basically, they think their patents are broad enough that they cover other people’s different, independently-invented solutions to the same problems.

  9. tom says:

    + 1000 for sylvain :)
    i found for example this great project, smartrap. they share all to thingiverse, gpl, all! now they start an indiegogo to help to go forward with the design , then what ? nothing ! nada ! it’s not a “product” it’s an open source dev. So It’s not only about companies, but people are also formatted to this business model ! that scares me out .

  10. So, basically all that PR spread around by MakerBot when it was bought was, in fact, BS. Closed source. Patent lawsuits. Threatening competition.

    Yep, really honoring your open source roots there, MakerBot.

  11. Rahere says:

    The defence is very simple, the magic “public domain”. All they have to do is point out that virtually every other manufacturer also uses a heated base as proof that the patent has been placed in the public domain counter-sue for costs on the grounds of partiality: had Stratasys intended to defend their patent, then they would be suing every other manufacturer as well in the suit. That they are not demonstrates that the patent was put in the public domain

    1. Bruce says:

      This is so not how patents work.

  12. Brady says:

    Interested to see how this plays out for CES 2014 coming soon….They may have some people coming after them seeing that makerbot and stratasys have 3 booths combined.

    1. Bjørn Borud says:

      If anyone here is going to the conference (or any conference where Stratasys and/or Makerbot will be present) I think we should make our displeasure known. How about we get some stickers made and hand them out at conferences? Something alluding to the bait-and-switch of Makerbot.

      1. MoyD says:

        Let’s wear a shirt that says ⓉRAITORBOT

  13. fuceye says:

    i’d rather buy a $200 clone of a makerbot made in china than spend $2000+ on the real thing…funny.

  14. In my best Yoda voice: Begun the 3D Printer War has.

  15. everyone needs to read this book to create resilience: http://www.starfishandspider.com/

  16. As we move into the Thanksgiving holiday, I would like to remind everyone of MAKE’s “Be Nice” comment policy. Michael Weinberg has written a really excellent article on an important and timely event and there are some very thoughtful and interesting responses to it recorded here. There are also some threads that are devolving and becoming mean-spirited. MakerBot is obviously a part of this story and everyone is entitled to their opinion, but let’s keep it above the belt. No profanity please, let’s keep a clean house.

    1. bobc says:

      I hear what you are saying, but people are angry about this and rightly so, given the way Makerbot have turned on the community.

      1. fuceye says:

        there nasty….how do you say that nicely ?

  17. hansj66 says:

    I see absolutely no reason to continue indirectly supporting Stratasys by providing free content to Thingiverse. I have removed all my design files (http://www.thingiverse.com/hansj66/designs) and left the following message:

    “The design files for this thing have been removed as a protest against Stratasys after their decision to file a patent infringement lawsuit against Microboards Technology.
    Their decision is extremely destructive and also underlines that the patent system is obsolete as it no longer serves any purpose for the betterment of society. Its main role is as a blunt weapon used by incumbents to hamper innovation.
    I see absolutely no reason to continue indirectly supporting Stratasys by providing free content to Thingiverse.”

    1. Luis says:

      Just switch to Youmagine. Lots of development is being done and Ultimaker loves its community. https://www.youmagine.com/ See a pattern in my replies? Stay open!

  18. Peter Buelow says:

    I believe this is simply a test of their patents and a way to validate them so they can begin to charge licensing fees. Bring up legal possibilities against a company big enough that the courts won’t believe you to be a bully, but small enough to not likely fight back. If settled, that actually would work well in terms of precedent when they start to ask other companies for royalties related to the patents. To be fair, this is their right in the current system, and isn’t necessarily evil, unless they decide to simply squash the market by charging fees new entrants can’t afford or just decide to not license the patents.

    What would be best, in any event, is for Afinia to poke holes in some or all of the patents in a court case which would either change precedent, reducing the fees that can be charged, make the courts state the fees must be reasonable and non discriminatory (RAND), or simply invalidate the patents meaning nothing bad happens to the smaller competitor.

    Patents need to change. But unless Stratasys is doing this to just be completely evil and monopolistic, it’s probably going to sort out in some way that continues to let everyone be involved, albeit just a tad more expensively.

  19. Bjørn Borud says:

    I had a prototype valve up on Thingiverse. I have now removed the files and replaced the description with a notice saying that I have removed my content because I don’t want to (indirectly) support Stratasys’ actions.

    In the future I will share any 3D designs using other means.

    If you feel strongly about this, I think you should consider moving your designs away from Thingiverse as well.

    1. Luis says:

      Switch to Youmagine. Lots of development is being done and Ultimaker loves its community. https://www.youmagine.com/

  20. peter says:

    This is particularly alarming for a variety of reasons. One piece to the story I haven’t heard others mention is that when the Makerbot MK7 extruder was released, folks commented on how it was a nearly exact copy of the Up!/Afinia extruder (http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:11734/#comments , near the earliest comments). If I remember correctly, the Up folks who designed the extruder even commented about this, but their posts were filtered. I wouldn’t be surprised if those comments all disappear in short order.

    The comments I’ve read suggest that Makerbot, for all its potential with print quality, still suffers from reliability and the capacity to “just click print”, the category that the Up!/Afinia won in this year’s Make 3D printer roundup, which might also suggest why they’re going after this printer. It’s ridiculous that so many of us open content authors have supported Makerbot for these years, and that they’ve chosen to move directly against the open source community (Adrian Bowyer, the founder of the reprap project, which provided the foundation for Makerbot and I’m sure violates many of these “patents”, provided one third of their seed funding, even! http://www.makerbot.com/blog/2011/08/23/all-star-lineup-invests-in-makerbot/ ). I, for one, will not purchase anything from Makerbot ever again, and would like to remove all my designs from Thingiverse as soon as an open and comparable alternative emerges.

    1. Luis says:

      Easy, just switch to Youmagine. Lots of development is being done and Ultimaker loves its community. https://www.youmagine.com/

      1. Interesting site, but my problem is it’s still affiliated with a company that could behave similar to MakerBot in a few years. What happens if Ultimaker gets purchased? We need a database of 3D designs that is completely affiliate-free.

      2. Brett says:

        The problem with ANY website to share 3D designs is eventually it will be affiliated with someone. Let’s say everyone abandons all current sites for some new free non-affiliated site. The person that runs that site is going to be either spending money on it’s development, and putting in a lot of time to maintain it. I suppose it could be community managed like a wiki, but ultimately there will need to be moderators and people working on the backend. Servers that serve up data for 1000′s of users won’t be cheap. Eventually they will want to put ads all over the place to help pay for it, or find someone to invest with deep pockets. Or, someone with deep pockets will offer them stacks of cash for the website to get their user base (and subsequently fill the site with ads and restrictions). The only way I could see it working it to make it completely community driven, and legally distributed ownership to many people that are under contract to never sell out. Not impossible.

        1. Adrian says:

          Is there a way we couuld fix this by distributing the load ? I don’t know what’s possible, but I’m thinking something like a torrent for the actual designs and a tracking site to index them. The tracking site still has to be maintained but that’s an order of magnitude less bandwidth, and relatively easy to duplicate.

        2. Why not try and convince Wikipedia.org to take control of it? As 3D printing continues to grow worldwide, this is one way to keep it visible AND away from any commercial control? (Okay, one could argue that Wikipedia would be in control, but given its history I don’t see a huge risk with placing it inside that fence.)

    2. Luis says:

      And you are correct about the Up! Extruder and MK7 being so similar. It’s probably because they had one in the “R&D” office in Brooklyn. I owned an UP! and was not stupid enough to think they had innovated the MK7. It’s all very disappointing but all too familiar.

  21. Kieran says:

    S’pose we could donate towards Afinia’s legal costs. And boycott makerbot in favour of reprap etc. What about thingiverse though; is there another thingiverse-style site which is community owned?

    1. It’s not much, but I’ve removed the files for my 4 things on Thingiverse. I refuse to contribute to the community of a company that sues the community.

      1. steve ryan says:

        Stratasys, is obviously going after the “Threat” ……. They are playing the “Microsoft Game” basically buy out the smaller companies that are willing to sell, and with all their money and lawyers squash the little guys.
        Makes me sick, Boycott anything that is tied too Stratasys…..

  22. Ryan Lane says:

    Maybe I’m wrong here, but I swear I learned in a pottery class ages ago that instead of a solid block of clay it was better to lay a grid of materials with holes for the air to expand so that firing was easier. Is that a common technique? If so that would would be prior art on infill. On top of that I’m pretty sure that people working with glass have understood that you need to keep it hot. It doesn’t seem like you should be able to patent common sense. And hidden seam? I mean really. This has been part of knitting, basket weaving, to any number of other long standing traditional art forms. It isn’t special just because it’s plastic.

    1. MattP says:

      From personal experience with an exploding piece of pottery, it is not so much air contained within a clay object as it is steam produced by rapid and inconsistent heating of the clay (that is not to say a fully sealed envelope of clay will not result in similar failure). If you make the piece of clay too thick, then during the usual firing process you can get into a situation where there is a significant amount of wet clay contained within a shell of dry clay. This shell hinders the release of steam from the wet clay. Eventually, the shell can no longer contain the pressure of the steam and expanding wet clay, so it ruptures in an often spectacular manner. This leads to the general rule of never making clay thicker than it needs to be, and hollowing out larger parts to prevent destruction (also preheating objects in the kiln to partly dry the clay prior to the actual firing process). At the time (middle school?), I wondered if this was somehow related to the naming of the claymore mine since the section of my project that exploded took out part of another student’s project in the kiln (or vice versa?).

      There are plenty of other instances of using one or more materials to produce a limited infill to cut down mass while retaining strength and dimensional tolerances over wider temperature ranges. Plates bonded to a honeycomb (or foam) core to produce very stiff and lightweight plates, walls, floors, boats, airplanes, and optical tables. Honeycomb or triangular ribs can also be milled from thick sheets of material to produce something similar to the sandwiched honeycomb but with no chance of delamination (this process was used on the beryllium mirrors on the JWST).

  23. Karl says:

    Consider if all throughout history people were so concerned with intellectual property rights, something that has just come to light really since the Napster incident, if everyone sued over intellectual property, we would have no school, no education system.

    How could we teach anything if that knowledge cost us to learn, can you imagine society and life in general if, say, the knowledge to make fire was held under intellectual property rights, no cooking, no smelting, no forging, no heat for homes, something as mundane as creating fire, if people had to pay in order to learn how, would have killed off the human race.

    Human knowledge belongs to the people, we all have the right to learn and know all that we can, to withhold knowledge is a crime against humanity, to prevent us from innovating simply because you want to make more money should be considered tantamount to mass murder, if you stunt innovation, you stunt everything.

    Free knowledge, free humanity.

  24. Adrian says:

    Isn’t variable density infill a technique that long predates 3d printers ?

    Any item made from epoxy foam, for instance, has a thin non-porous skin and a closed-cell foam interior structure. Although this is partially a property of the foam (the bubbles at the edges tend to burst), it’s a desirable feature that encouraged for all the same reasons infill is used in printers.

    It’s also relevant that the technique is common outside of 3d printing. Patents that incorporate existing ideas and attempt to capture them by claiming that they’re new ‘in a computing context’ are a scourge in the computing and online worlds. It would be foolish to allow them to go unchallenged in manufacturing.

  25. rooiejoris says:

    bit off-topic, the weekly cup of this week: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:192870
    Inspired by the Stratasys lawsuit on Afinia. This cup have all the patents applied, whatever printer you use.

    cheers\joris

  26. NH3D says:

    Two points to keep in mind:

    First, Afinia doesn’t simply resell the Up! printer, rather it takes a printer made by a large manufacturer, Beijing TierTime, and upgrades it to USA requirements then sells the printer as an Afinia model. I don’t know whether the alleged infringing items are made by Afinia or Beijing TierTime but, if it is the latter, then the result of this complaint has very far-reaching consequences.

    Second, the 3D Systems suit against Formlabs is as important as the Stratasys complaint against Afinia but will hopefully be resolved in the near future.

  27. Macman says:

    I get so annoyed by all this patent nonsense. So many patents are built on prior art, so shouldn’t be patentable. I think the Romans used hollow fill, and heated build chambers (kiln).

  28. mweinbergpk says:

    Thanks to everyone for all of these great responses. With the extremely limited exceptions of a handful of unnecessary personal attacks (which the “be nice” reminder seems to have mostly taken care of), these have all been incredibly helpful and interesting. Please keep them coming!

  29. MattP says:

    Wow. Having now looked through US5653925, I think Stratasys is full of it. Their patent is entirely about entraining pockets of air between each strand/bead of printed material to create closed pores in the entire object’s structure to produce something similar to a foam. That is nothing like their illustration, or my understanding, of variable infill, which is a largescale, open grid of non-porous extruded structures similar to isogrids or honeycomb composites.

  30. Another example of the evil of patent protection. While this lawsuit may impact some 3D printer manufacturers, we should not allow it to impair open source printers or software. Stratsys can’t sue a website owner who has published plans or source code. Even providers of kits are immune from these attacks. In general the open source community should totally disregard patents. Unlike copyrights, they have no teeth against open source. Let’s copy these patented products like crazy, innovating and publishing the designs. Only then, will patents provide the innovation they were originally intended to.

    1. mweinbergpk says:

      While I certainly don’t think that the open source community should be running out get patents, I don’t know that it can totally disregard them. There is nothing about an open source printer that exempts it from a patent infringement lawsuit. Similarly, “just” selling a kit for a 3D printer that infringes on a patent probably won’t be enough to stop an infringement suit.

      1. I am not a lawyer, so you may be completely correct in what you say, but what can they do? Tell you to take down a webpage that simply states the same information already disclosed in a patent? When selling kits, you are simply selling a bunch of parts and some information – no real product. What can they do? Patents are morally wrong and harmful to society. It is time to simply ignore them, doing whatever we need to do to stay clear of the patent trolls.

        Home schooling didn’t become safe to practice until enough people did what it takes. Similarly, those drinking raw milk are facing a similar battle. Ditto file sharing. Gangs and companies will aways oppose any competition. Just because they have the color of law doesn’t make it right.

        1. mweinbergpk says:

          On the kit front, patent law does recognize that sometimes selling a kit that can be assembled by the end user is pretty much the same thing as selling the assembled thing. Within the confines of patent law, this is pretty reasonable. If you could get around patent lawsuits merely by selling people almost assembled things, patents would not be worth very much.
          Of course, none of this means that patents should not be worth very much or that patents are a net positive or net negative for society. I just means that, under our current patent system, selling kits that are intended to be assembled into a machine that infringes on a patent can often be interpreted as the same as selling the machine. And the remedy for that is a patent infringement lawsuit.

  31. Brett says:

    I’ve just been looking at MakerBot patents and the first 3 that I saw don’t impress me as anything novel. Combining 3D printing with something else in my opinion is not patentable, like 3D printing via a network, or 3D printing around electronics or adding a conveyor belt to a 3D printer to print something long like for example, a gutter. But apparently they were awarded these patents. Guys… seriously we need to start patenting stuff like, 3D printers that use the color black (design patent), 3D printers that are powered from batteries (utility patent), 3D printers that have a USB host built on to accept files directly without a computer, 3D printers that communicate with bluetooth to manage print queues and settings, 3D printers that are controlled via keypads… seeing a pattern here? We need to invalidate all 3D printer patents by printing in 4, 5 or 6 dimensions! X, Y, Z, Pitch, Yaw and Roll. Honestly it seems like a dirty game to combine commonly known and available technologies together and call that an invention. Oh right, don’t hate the player… hate the game played by the player. Darn game. Why you make me so mad GAME???

    1. Dion says:

      @Brett…no need to patent (spend $$$$$) just disclose the design in broad terms. It starts the clock on patentability.

  32. Dion says:

    I have two things to say regarding the ’925 patent complaints (infill):

    1. Patent 5,490,962 within the same US Classification at ’925 is pretty close to the main claim in the Stratasys ’925 patent. As an engineer trained in the art (warning not a patent lawyer), its an easy an obvious jump from porous bio-material matrix with fluid based drugs in gaps to porous ABS and with air in gaps. FYI: The ’962 Patent expired 10/18/2013.

    2. The ’925 patent clearly defines “changing” the flow of the molten plastic to achieve porosity. Indeed, it clearly directs the public against stepping over the bead to point where they don’t touch within a layer. I don’t believe this is how Cura, Slic3r, or the others work to achieve porosity. Firmware guru’s please comment.

  33. Dion says:

    I have two things to say about Stratasys patent ’058 complaint (bed temps to prevent warp):

    1. The 1st and 2nd independent claims clearly specify extruding the molten material into a build region that locally has a temperature exceeds the solidification temperature (i.e. glass transition in the case of ABS = 105 C) of the molten material.

    2. They clearly reference prior art (Patent 5,121,329) where build region for FDM is below the solidification temperature. It expired in 10/30/2009 and was assigned to non-other than Stratasys.

    Suggestion: Market running your bed temp (i.e. Build Region) as Sub-point 1 for all materials. In the case of ABS 104.9 C.

    1. mweinbergpk says:

      Thanks Dion!

  34. bobm says:

    On Nov 27, Silvain posted,
    “1) If you can, help invalidate the patents by digging-up “prior art”. Any publication, in any language, published anywhere in the World and describing the invention (even applied to other fields, eg. infill control of bricks for the ‘925 patent) prior to filling date can make the patents worthless and harmless. As a bonus, it would hit Stratasys where it *really* hurts, their crown jewels, their IP.
    This would be *much more* useful that giving money to any defense fund.”

    My thoughts as well, but let’s go further. There are two notable “background” issues:
    1. The USPTO has been allowing ridiculously broad claims in recent years, and the trend is getting worse.
    2. It costs a fortune to engage in court, so the big player enjoys financial hegemony, and even simply being right may not be enough for the defendant.

    But the response itself costs relatively little, and is mandatory anyway. The preparation of a response to such a complaint should rely heavily on research and discovery of prior art, and then inference of tortious conduct, especially with regard to prior art. If such harm can be reasonably argued, respondant should counter-sue on these allegations. For example, if there is prior art of which complainant should have been aware, aggravation based on intent, predatory behavior and maliciousness become sustainable. This is especially true if the prior art is found in complainant’s own expired claims, or in gratuitous teaching (not followed by timely claims) in its own patents, whether in-force or not.

    Timing, target selection, etc. may also support an allegation of predatory conduct.

    Counter-suit would level the playing field considerably.

In the Maker Shed