What a way to waste money; in legal fees. The dream of desktop stereolithography (SL) went on hold recently, as 3D Systems filed a lawsuit against Formlabs for its Form 1 desktop 3D printer, based on comments the Formlab executives reportedly said in the media. In a unique move, 3D Systems is also suing Kickstarter, the crowdsourcing site that lets individuals pledge money to fund the development of the Form 1.
The lawsuit alleges that Formlabs violated claims 1 and 23 of United States Patent No. 5,597,520 “Simultaneous multiple layer curing in stereolithography,” well known patents owned by 3D Systems. These patents cover how SL lays down material and cures it.
As some in this industry have said, why didn’t 3D Systems just buy Formlabs and control the technology that way? Maybe that approach was tried.
The Kickstarter portion of the lawsuit is getting a lot of buzz in the industry. DIYers, one of the markets 3D Systems pursues with its Cube 3D printer, are not happy about this development. So, why is 3D Systems suing Kickstarter? According to the lawsuit, Kickstarter takes a 5% cut of the pledges made to Formlabs, so Kickstarter’s promotion of the Form 1 has caused “immediate and irreparable injury and damage to 3D Systems.” DIYers are concerned that this lawsuit will open the doors for more lawsuits, threatening crowdsourcing opportunities.
As to the comments made by Formlabs co-founders, in its court filings, 3D Systems claims that the co-founders told Techcrunch that they were able to develop an affordable SL 3D printer because several patents had expired, and so could avoid licensing fees. That might indicate that the co-founders did thorough research.
But various industry analysts, including those covering the financial angle, have said that the Form 1 would somehow hamper 3D Systems future growth, which 3D Systems is claiming is also part of the damage.
Said Andrew Johnson, General Counsel of 3D Systems, “3D Systems invented and pioneered the 3D printing technology of stereolithography and has many active patents covering various aspects of the stereolithography process. Although Formlabs has publicly stated that certain patents have expired, 3D Systems believes the Form 1 3D printer infringes at least one of our patents, and we intend to enforce our patent rights.”
The question is, did Formlabs really violate a patent? There are doubters. Commentators on LinkedIn noted that Formlabs also has venture capital, and that VC companies tend to be diligent about investigating patent infringement. In the case of 3D Systems, the patents are pretty well known. So exactly how does 3D Systems know one of it patents have been violated? Does it have a Form 1 that its engineers have examined? According to Formlabs, a few of its units went to early Kickstarter backers this past September and October. So, maybe 3D Systems does have access to one. But if 3D Systems has not examined a unit, then this lawsuit could be an attempt to block further development and distribution of the more than 1000 units already spoken for by Kickstarter backers.
Of course, Formlab engineers could have found a way to perform SL without infringing on 3D Systems patents. I hear rumblings that Formlab engineers are using blue-ray technology to cure the material. For small, high resolution needs, this works just fine. For bigger items, blue-ray technology does not have enough power. The material is a photo curable resin based on acrylate chemistry. But it will have limited mechanical properties.
The Form 1 is the first personal 3D printer using stereolithography as its process. The other desktop, low-priced printers in this market are based on FDM technology invented by Scott Crump at Stratasys. Some of Stratasys’ patents have expired; others have not.
In the Form 1, a high precision system directs a laser across a tray of the photopolymer-based liquid resin and causes a thin layer to solidify. The build platform, which is 4.9 x 4.9 x 6.5 in., then rises in preparation for the next layer, and the next until your part is build. Minimum layer thickness is 25 microns.
SL can often outperform the print quality of even high-end FDM machines. Until now, a professional SL printer has been far out of reach for the individual designer.
The bigger question is whether this lawsuit is real in that 3D Systems patents have indeed been violated, or whether this is an attempt to stop competition. We may not know the answer to that for several years, with a lot of money spent (or wasted) on both sides of the issues. (In an interesting digression, some people have mentioned that it might be a good idea to use Kickstarter to help fund Formlabs legal defense.)
The winners of this lawsuit will be the lawyers. The real losers will be the end-user; in terms of legal action inhibiting development of innovative technology that lowers the cost of developing desktop 3D printers for additive technologies, in terms of a unique 3D printer for the desktop; and especially in terms of opportunities lost due to time and money spent on legal issues.
In the end, all this activity may prove fruitless because someone somewhere will develop a better desktop 3D printer. That will be money well spent.