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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.