Smooth Moves: How to Avoid Getting Blocked (by 3D Printing Patents)

3D printing, in particular the low-cost kind, often means accepting the fact that your printed parts are often going to look kind of rough, with perceptible lines/bumps marking each layer that was printed to form the object.

Smoothing is one problem that high-cost 3D printer manufacturers have solved (and patented) in numerous ways (for example…). But many of the new low-cost 3D printers are using fairly basic, first generation off-patent technologies that don’t/can’t incorporate such solutions.

You could look at this as another case of patents blocking good things from happening. But Wired recently posted an article about two men from the Fablocker collective who are using a method of smoothing 3D prints that can approximate “the results of professional molding machines with only a hot plate, mason jar, and a few ounces of acetone nail-polish remover” without violating patents.

Just a few weeks ago Wired pointed to a Stratasys patent covering smoothing technologies that, according to Wired, was “stymying” makers’ innovations. The patent was part of a list that Wired said “could take momentum from the upstarts and return it to the entrenched companies.” This kind of black-and-white thinking with respect to patents really should stop, especially from a source as mainstream and respected as Wired. Obviously, the Stratasys patent didn’t really prevent innovation – it just forced some clever people to find a different way to accomplish the task by ‘designing around’ the patent. That is why the sky-is-falling reaction to new patents on 3D printing technology mystifies me a bit – even a patent that prevents you from using a particular technology to solve a problem can inspire you to find a different, possibly better way to achieve the same result.

In furtherance of this argument, this week I want to wade into the patent debate and look at what they really mean for 3D printing development. And let’s look at examples of patents actually holding back innovation, and other examples where patents were the driving force behind it.

(And no, I’m not proud of the fact that we’re less than a month into this blog and my post titles already include laxative references.)

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