Core patents for selective laser sintering (SLS) technology will expire next year. The expiration was announced several weeks ago and immediately sparked speculation about the near future of the technology, including the notion that Chinese manufacturers would flood the market with dirt-cheap systems, leading to the development of desktop SLS devices. Experts, however, take a very different stance.
SLS is one of the most exciting tenets of additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing). SLS uses a high-powered laser to fuse small particles of plastic, metal, ceramic, or glass powder. The powder then melts, which cools in layers to form a solid object.
Today's SLS machines are expensive, with some costing as much as $250,000. Experts say a dramatic price drop is unlikely. "The patent expiring will have a beneficial impact, and there will be more competition," said Todd Grimm, President of T.A. Grimm and Associates
, a marketing and consulting firm that advises businesses on SLS and other additive manufacturing technologies. "But it won't be that big of a deal."
The patents that are expiring are only the core patents for the technology, Grimm stressed. That means the original components of SLS, invented in the mid-1980s by Carl Deckard, then of the University of Texas, will become public domain, "but all of the improvements and advancements made in the last 20 years, those (patents) are still on the books," he said.
With so many patents for SLS still in force, companies will be treading very carefully when looking to improve machines or make their own products using SLS, for fear of being sued.
"I think a lot of people have seen that 3D Systems will come after you if they think you're infringing on them," said Brian Bauman, president of Sintergy
, two 3D printing companies.
The fear that the price of SLS machines will plummet and precipitate a flood of Chinese imports into the U.S. is also unfounded, Bauman said.
"I work with a Chinese manufacturer, and I'm trying to convince them to come into (SLS), but when they look at the situation they say there are too many red flags," Bauman said. "They're very cautious about being sued, and the start-up costs to bring machines over are very high. These are very, very difficult machines to transport, and the scanning and heating systems add a lot of costs as well."
Chuck Alexander, product manager for additive manufacturing products at Solid Concepts
, a California-based 3D printing company, said that SLS isn't likely to see the same fate as fused deposition modeling (FDM), another additive manufacturing technology.
When FDM patents expired, there was a surge in companies getting into business, but "SLS is a lot different," he said. "It's a lot more difficult."
And that may be the biggest reason SLS won't see major changes right away: it's a complex process. Grimm explained that it's not something an average business owner or entrepreneur can just learn to perfect in a few weeks.
"With laser sintering you're working in a very tightly controlled environment, where just a small difference in temperature will change a lot," he said. "You've got to make sure that you've got the same temperature on all sides." Working with plastics in SLS adds another challenge. "You have to have a certain quality of powder and really strict temperature control," he said.
"Another factor that may slow (SLS growth) is that a business really needs to have enough work to support one of these machines," said Alexander. "The cost driver of the operations is material, but you need to have a lot of work to support that infrastructure."
Still, Grimm and others insist that there will be advantages when the core patents do expire. The steep cost of the machines could come drop by half. And with more companies willing to make the investment, there will likely be some further innovations in SLS.
The changes will bring about more competition, a bump up in material development, and perhaps new materials getting invented from chemical companies like Dow Chemical.
"For functional parts with plastic, it's been solely limited to Polymex," Grimm said. "Now we might see some TPU's (thermo-plastic urethane) and other thermo-plastics come into the equation."
Laser sintering will not be happening in everyone's home workshop anytime soon. "But you could definitely see a huge expansion into a lower-end market, where smaller design houses can do it," Bauman said. "The plastics side still has some barriers to entry, but over the next few years some of those could fall."