3D Printing & Imaging Workshop

3D Systems, makers of the Cube, a $1,299 hobbyist-level 3D printer, along with considerably more expensive industrial-level 3D printers, has filed what may be the first patent lawsuit in the hobbyist 3D printer market.

3D Systems is claiming that Formlabs, makers of the Form 1 3D printer, is infringing its patent “Simultaneous multiple layer curing in stereolithography.” The Form 1, unlike most RepRap-style DIY 3D printers that use plastic extrusion to build 3D objects, instead uses stereolithography (SL) technology, where lasers are used to solidify UV curable material in layers. SL technology creates 3D prints that are a much higher resolution than can be achieved by plastic extrusion technology, and makes the Form 1 compete in quality with 3D Systems’ higher-end printers that cost many times more than the Form 1.

Neither the Form 1 nor the Cube are open source. However, it’s clear that the results of this lawsuit, and ones like it, will have an impact on the open source 3D printer community.

In a surprising move, 3D Systems is also suing Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site that Formlabs used to pre-sell almost $3 million worth of the Form 1 and related gear. This could potentially be bad for Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites if they’re held responsible for items that are sold through their site if those products are later revealed to violate patents.

It is unclear if the B9 Creator, another Kickstarter-funded stereolithography printer which uses a DLP projector rather than a laser to cure the resin, will be a future target of 3D Systems.

Patent lawsuits are nothing new to professional 3D printing, which as an industry, has been around since the 1980s. Indeed, much of the reason for the RepRap project and its derivative products proliferating today has to do with patents on Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) technology expiring. FFF is also known by the terms FDM and Fused Deposition Modeling, which are both trademarked by Stratasys Inc., developer of the technology in the late 1980s.

Patents still constrain the DIY 3D printer market. For example, even though it’s well-known that, when printing with ABS plastic, it’s best to have an enclosed and preferably heated chamber around the print area, Stratasys has an active patent on that, preventing anyone from selling a completely enclosed printer, no matter how obvious it may be.

3D Systems has an entire patent portfolio for DIY 3D printer makers to avoid. Stratasys is also very actively applying for patents that may directly affect the DIY 3D printing market. There are many others with patents, many of which are not obvious to watch out for. Even MakerBot has a patent.

The EFF recently issued a statement about how patents may harm the DIY 3D printing industry, asking for help locating patents that may be detrimental to the industry:

While many core patents restricting 3D printing have expired or will soon expire, there is a risk that “creative” patent drafting will continue to lock up ideas beyond the 20-year terms of those initial patents or that patents will restrict further advances made by the open hardware community.

This is likely to be only the first patent lawsuit that affects the DIY 3D printing industry.

47 thoughts on “3D Systems Suing Formlabs and Kickstarter for Patent Infringement

  1. If we’re a manufacturer in the DIY 3D printing business, should we avoid reading these patents? Or should we read them?

    The probability of patent infringement is reduced when you’re aware of the existing patents, but infringing a patent while you know you’re doing so may give you a stronger punishment than when you infringe a patent by not being aware of its existence. This leads us to a lose-lose scenario.

    1. If you’re a manufacturer in any business you have a certain obligation to make sure you aren’t using other peoples’ patented technology without a license. Depending on the business that might mean consulting with a patent attorney. The “lose-lose” scenario you describe leaves out the way the system is designed to work : you research to see if the technology you use violates a patent and if it does, you buy a license. We all want a better patent system, but until we have one I don’t think it’s wise to pretend that closing your eyes and pretending other peoples’ patents don’t exist is a viable option. It certainly won’t protect you in court.

      1. Completely incorrect. If you are worried about this sort of thing, definitely see a lawyer.

        If you read a patent and then infringe, you are considered to have performed “willful infringement”, and are liable for much more penalties than if you had not read the patent.

        1. And suspecting there’s a patent, and pretending not to read it, will be taken by the judge as VERY CHILDISH and get you the exact same penalties for “willful infringement”. Guess what – reading the patent, studying it, AND FINDING A NEW WAY TO DO IT without violating the claims is PERFECTLY LEGAL and exactly what the patent system was designed for – that’s called “innovation”.

          Grow up. Create something new, or better, or original. Don’t just pout and ignore the realities.

    2. I suggest you get a lawyer and ask him the questions instead of random strangers on the internet.

      Seriously, wtf? You hit up craigslist for legal advice also?

    1. So true, this is what’s going to happen ! I was about to confirm my purchase of the Formlab 1, but I was hesitating…then found this topic…It was the only 3D printer with decent resolution that I could afford :(

      Pfff ! I hate patents and big companies, they are destroying the planet and the relation between humans.

  2. we need to mobilize on this… anyone who has ideas of how to do so, please contact me. Count me in. Kickstarter is one of the key places of innovation for the masses… and 3D printing is the same… I’m not sure of the legal aspects of the Form 1 case, but the patent office is (although adjusting to do better) not currently serving the needs of an innovative America…

    1. 3D Systems filed for their patent back in 1994 granting them a 20 year intellectual property protection. The laws have changed to where any design patent filings after June 1995 only have 14 years protection. Personally, I think this needs to get cut shorter to ten years so start ups can stand a chance of make it in this economy.

  3. Makerbot has a patent?? Looking at their patent I would love to have the patent examiner explain why this isn’t covered by prior art.

    Assembly lines have used recirculating conveyor systems to build items upon and have them automatically removed, etc.

    What am I missing? What makes their patent patent-worthy?

    1. Yeah, their patent on the automated build platform is pretty weak, IMHO. Belt conveyors have been around the material handling industry for ages. I fail to see how slapping that idea into a 3D printer is novel in any way, shape or form. Conveyor companies have been using all types of belt materials, designs, etc. for quite some time. Heck, food companies that squirt dough or chocolate or anything else onto a conveyor could be used as prior art.

      1. The US patents life systems several billion years old, on the basis it’s not the system but the use to which it is put that is what is being patented.

  4. If Kickstarter can be sued for patent infringement by a company that raises funding on Kickstarter, then can the New York Stock Exchange be sued for patent infringement by a company listed there?

    This item will not be sold until after 2014, at which time the 20-year utility patent will have expired. I thought patents only prohibited the selling of patented items. But now they also prevent what is technically only fund-raising?

    How about R&D? Is R&D during the patent period prohibited too? How about if two or three techies get together in a restaurant to chat about what they could do when a patent expires? Are we allowed to even think about patented technology prior to the expiration of the patent?

    I would think that patent lawyers would be concerned about the precedent involved in this suit, because if patents become too strong, then innovation will be inhibited and consequently there will be less opportunity for patent conflict, hence less employment for patent attorneys.

    1. Kickstarter is named in the suit because they got a 5% cut of the initial sales of the device during the fundraising drive. The suit argues that they acted as a reseller and that the items have in fact already been sold, because the money has changed hands. When they are delivered is not actually relevant to that question, the question is whether revenue has been generated for machines which infringe the patent. This also addresses the rest of your point: There’s no R&D or “thought-crime” like restrictions as you suggest, but you can’t sell a product based on proprietary technology without a license, and the suit argues that they’ve sold a product, they just haven’t delivered it. Now whether that reasoning of the definition of a sale holds up, and whether Kickstarter is liable even though their TOS prohibits projects which violate patents are questions you can bet their lawyer(s) will explore. Whether the machine actually violates the patent named in the suit and whether that patent can withstand a re-examination will be the questions Formlabs’ lawyer(s) get to explore.

      1. Not according to the International Accounting Standards: the contract may be to develop a product, but that can be abortive and if no product is producable for these reasons, then the contract lapses because no consideration, no product, can pass in the return direction. A contract which turns out to be incapable of completion is no contract all, it’s like contracting with someone to build an infinite energy device, the contract’s by definition void.
        It’s why income should not be recognised as such in the accounts until the product is shipped, too many things can go wrong. It can be held to the customer’s account, sure, but no more than that: that way it can be repaid if everything falls flat.
        A failed contract can generate other compensation, sure, but not to a third party who had no stake in the contract in the first place. You may anticipate a market development and position yourself to benefit from it, but you may not sue if it doesn’t happen: it would not then be a free market.

  5. Minor clarfication… this article made it sound like the Cube is a competing SL printer. It appears to be a plastic filament printer, like a rep rap or makerbot.

  6. I really think everyone is missing what is going on here… The legal details are not what is the real issue. Innovation needs to flourish for the USA and other countries to make progress on the real challenges we face as a species. Hoping that companies, or goverments will address (or even recognize) the future challenges we as people will face is “putting all of your eggs in a few baskets”. When innovation is available to large quantities of people they can solve whatever problems they want.
    Kickstarter offers the ability to do “grass roots” funding to a wide audience. If a group of individuals want to see something come to life, they can back it regardless of geography, or social bias, or whatever standard obstacles can get in the way of seeing a project come to life.
    Add to that the fact that this 3D modeling item (the Form 1) brings the barrier to entry on innovative products and puts it in the hands of anyone who can buy a used car… and you have the potential to really put innovation in the hands of a larger mass of people.
    Innovation diversified is a huge opportunity for the human race to overcome the mistakes we have made in the past.
    The law looks backward, and it is based in precedent and old thinking. Lawyers get paid to fight in court, Of course they will say “um… that’s not clear… lets go to court…” Never ask a man with a shoe shine kit how your shoes look. Never ask a lawyer if you should litigate.
    Our community needs to act, and as a group to make sure that innovation stays where it belongs. In the hands of as many people as possible.
    Debating the legal details, regardless of your law background is a waste of effort.
    This may be one of the pivotal issues for the USA especially and for people worldwide. Can you criple a “matchmaker” like kickstarter with legal action? (regardless of who wins this case, kickstarter is about to spend a LOT of money defending themselves… they won’t “win” but they might get through it without having it damage their business model…)

    1. Any way to get this to the President? He’s been supporting the development and should be rather upset one company’s trying to monopolise the market.

  7. I will never buy from a company that care more about money than innovation.
    The 2 laser technology is 20 years old, let it go.
    Come up with something new to stay ahead.

  8. I’ve been looking at Patent 5,597,520 and it looks like it would affect the software/firmware that Formlabs is using rather than the actual hardware. What if they shipped the printers without software that made use of simultaneous curing of multiple layers for now to get around the patent? (they might have to bump up the layer thickness to maintain structural integrity while printing one layer at a time.) Then they could upgrade the software at a later date when the patent runs out. Does anyone know if there are other patents involved?

  9. Is the manufacturer of the 3D machine used by a person to copy a product protected by a design patent, a contributing infringer?

  10. Stratasys has an active patent on that, preventing anyone from selling a completely enclosed printer, no matter how obvious it may be.

    But one claim of the patent says the motors. etc are external to the heated build area, so if you put the motors inside the heated build area, such as the solidoodle 2 printer, you are not violating the patent.

    Not sure what that does to your motors long-term, but it invalidates this patent as it was written.

  11. I can’t help but keep thinking that there’s a certain poetic justice in this. The entire idea from the very start was that we should do it ourselves, in the RepRap mould. That is why it was OpenSourced, to stop this kind of nonsense. However, people were too lazy to learn the skills needed, and the supply of parts too limited, so companies started jacking the price up and then selling complete units for some serious dosh, cashing in on the prices top-of-the-range machines were asking.That then became the current industry – but it’s not too late to step back in time and restart.
    Part of the problem is that there were too many marginally relevant subversions – or should it be subvertions? to follow. A good basic design is a good basic design, and stick with it: Stop confusing matters with stupid marketing names like “Mendel”, “Huxley” or whatever, simply number versions and upgrades and be done with it. That way we know where we are. If someone wants to replace the printhead, that’s their problem, as long as it conforms to the interface of the existing units. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

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Software Engineer by day, 3D printing enthusiast all the time.

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