Last week 3D-printing industry watcher Terry Wohlers told Techonomy “the sky is the limit” when it comes to the technology’s potential to transform manufacturing. Today, tech reporter Christopher Mims says you can look for the heavens to open up in February 2014. That’s when patents are set to expire on “selective laser sintering,” the key to industrial-grade 3D printing.

The MakerBot Replicator 2 desktop 3D printer
The MakerBot Replicator 2 desktop 3D printer

Hobbyist desktop 3D printers like the MakerBot, which go for around $300, are “not really usable for creating prototypes that can be directly translated into molds for mass production, and certainly not usable for creating finished goods,” Mims explains. Laser sintering 3D printers, on the other hand, can take a designer “from idea to finished product in a matter of hours, and create finished products to sell to the public.”
For access to those $10,000 machines, many DIY designers rely on Shapeways. But Shapeways’ Duann Scott tells Mims that demand for its service has extended product turnarounds to two weeks while Shapeways is on a 12-18-month waitlist for more printers. Its supplier, 3D Systems, controls those patents that are set to expire.
Mims writes at Atlantic Media’s Quartz:

“When the key patents expired on a more primitive form of 3D printing, known as fused deposition modeling, the result was an explosion of open-source FDM printers that eventually led to iconic home and hobbyist 3D printer manufacturer Makerbot…. A similar sequence involving the lifting of intellectual property barriers, a rise in competition, and a huge drop in price is likely to play out again in laser deposition 3D printers, says Shapeways’ Scott.”


At least according to Mims’s report, Scott doesn’t seem worried that access to reduced-price advanced printers will put a dent in his business; it will enable Shapeways to provide more services faster.
For those who want to know as much about where 3D printing came from as where it’s headed, Mims points to an excellent history of the additive printing industry, which got its start in the 1980s at the University of Texas at Austin on a customized Commodore 64 computer.