The 3D printing market could win big by following Tesla's patent-sharing lead

By James Robinson , written on June 18, 2014

From The News Desk

In one of the more heavily covered tech stories of the last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that his company would not initiate any patent lawsuits against people who wanted to use its technology "in good faith."

The rationale was simple: less IP-protectionism, more innovation; more innovation, bigger market; bigger market, everyone wins – including Tesla.

One can only dream that somewhere out there America’s 3D printing executives were noting Musk’s words and the ensuing applause, thus wondering if loosening the reins on innovation in their own backyard might spur the same sort of win-win that Musk is chasing down.

It’s hard to not to see close parallels between electric cars and 3D printing, both inevitably major industries of the future with transcendent potential sitting ever so slightly out of reach.

In the blog post announcing his patent liberating decision, Musk remarked that the “market is enormous.” One hundred million new cars are made each year. The global fleets sits at around 2 billion.

A study on 3D printing by product development company CEL earlier this year surmised that as many as one in three Americans might consider buying a printer in 2014. (If the consumer printers on offer didn't suck so bad.) The market has been pegged at a hypothetical $70 billion by 2030. Then again, each technology prompts a sort of utopian rhetoric at the world it could usher in.

Twenty-eight percent of America’s carbon emissions come from transportation. As Musk well knows, a world of electric cars could decimate that number. By similar analysis, 3D printing has the potential to upend the global supply chain, with industrial and consumer products easily and efficiently replicated hyper-locally.

The demand for each product is surely enormous. Musk, for his part, says that he can’t make electric cars fast enough to meet demand. 3D Systems has a similar 12-18 month waiting list for printers. But both companies face a similar issue. Each technology’s 2014 reality is hamstrung by issues of adoption, education, infrastructure, and quality of technology, meaning the pot of gold siting at the end of each perspective rainbow remains out of reach.

On bridging this divide though, Elon Musk and the 3D printing industry are like night and day, with one thinking grandly about a rising tide that raises all ships and the other narrowly about their own small vessel.

“If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal,” Musk writes.

Conversely, the small oligopoly of 3D printing giants -- 3D Systems, Stratasys and such -- are holding on to their IP as if they’re stockpiling arms for some coming apocalypse. Last year, the US Patent and Trademark Office reported to CNBC that it had received 6,800 patent applications relating to 3D printing. It said that since 2007 it had received an average of 680 patent applications per year. Some 3,500 patents related to 3D-printing have been granted in the last 10 years.

Access to intellectual property is a key factor in inspiring innovation. The current 3D printing boom has a lot to do with a patent expiring in 2009 for fused deposition modeling (the technology that squirts out melted plastic). We got the RepRap Mendel 3D printer almost immediately and MakerBot Industries followed hot on its heels. In the five years since, the price tag of an FDM 3D-printer fell from $14,000 to $300.

The 3D printing market, for its enormous hype, remains microscopic. According to a report by Gartner, in 2013 there were just 56,507 sub-$100,000 3D printers sold in the entire year, globally. Apple sells as many iPhones in just 20 minutes.

The 3D printing playing field is now so soggy with heavily guarded IP – 3D Systems and Stratasys are each involved in active litigation, proving they really mean business – that even expiring patents don’t bring much of a kick to the space. According to its 2013 Annual Report, 3D Systems closed the year with 973 patents, and another 204 applications in wait. At the end of 2011, Stratasys had more than 350.

As I reported two weeks ago, expiring laser sintering patents were expected to kick off a 2009-level 3D printing boom again, but that has yet to play out. Part of this is because the technology is hard, but part of it is that there are so many patents now, that it is hard to know where one ends and another starts. Even the lawyers are scratching their heads.

As many people pointed out after Tesla’s news, patents constrain further innovation, but they eventually expire. Letting them go speeds up innovation. And it doesn’t erode competitive advantage. 3D Systems’ last annual report states explicitly that its major benefit lies in its market expertise, not its IP. Tesla doesn’t fall back into the pack because other people can use its innovations to build similar cars. Hardware development and manufacturing is excruciating. Companies with a head start in building this stuff have a huge advantage still. And it's not like companies stand still or stop innovating.

3D printing and electrical cars both have the potential to benefit to society. Opening up patents is like pouring gas on a fire that is already lit. Tesla sees itself as winning in a roaring market stacked with new innovations. 3D printing monoliths, by contrast, want the walls to increase just fast enough to ensure they remain the only game(s) in town.

Our victory with electric cars is Tesla’s victory too. The 3D printing establishments gains are theirs alone. It's much less fun and much smaller thinking.