US Patent 5597589, “Apparatus for producing parts by selective sintering” has officially expired. This is one of the most important patents in the 3D printing world. It allowed 3D printer companies to charge significantly more for the fine nylon powder that is often used in these machines. This high cost has prevented many people (and businesses) from getting involved with 3D printing with any significant scale.
There are still some other similar patents out there, so it won’t be a simple matter of a company using this material tomorrow, however, this is a major hurdle that has now been passed. Companies with large pocketbooks will likely start pushing for this material, and going to court to get past the other patents. Once those patents either expire, or are ruled in court to not be a reason that other companies can’t use the nylon powder, we will really begin to see the price of 3D printing drop.
As with all new technologies, these patents are a dual edged sward. The patents allow the most innovative companies to profit from their major advancements. Since they don’t have competition, they can charge higher prices, which slows down the innovations made by the technology using that patent. In the long run, however, it seems clear that this system works out well for everyone.
Many experts in the 3D printing field believe that this one patent expiring will start the ball rolling for the manufacturing and selling of many new SLS type 3D printers. As more of them are made, the price will drop significantly, likely to the point where it is practical for the average Joe to have one in their house (if they are interested). Innovative high schools and even middle schools will start purchasing them and helping students learn about these great tools, which will really open the door to advancement in every field over the next decade.
The expiration of this patent may just be the thing that drives the biggest revolution within the 3D printing world, so keep an eye out over the next year for some amazing new capabilities and discoveries from 3D printing.