Consumer 3D printing: the beginning of the end?

Consumer 3D printing: the beginning of the end?
Late in 2013, as its acquisition of consumer 3D printer company Makerbot was complete, 3D printer giant Stratasys Ltd filed a patent infringement lawsuit against desktop 3D printer company Afina, or more precisely, its parent company Microboards Technology Inc.
This was an interesting move for a number of reasons. First of all, Afina has been selling 3D printers based on the fused deposition modelling approach since 2009, attracting until now no attention from Stratasys. This, in spite of the fact that the patents Stratasys claim have been infringed (of which there are 4) were granted in the late 1990's.
It is also entirely likely that many of the other desktop 3D printer manufacturers are employing virtually the same techniques and are probably therefore also infringing the Stratasys patents (possibly including Makerbot itself!). It is unclear if there is any claim in the Stratasys lawsuit that is actually specific to the Afina 3D printers, no doubt generating a degree of tension amongst alternative suppliers and their backers.
Figure 1: The Afina H-Series 3D printer. Source: Afina
Why Afina?
Stratasys, who have come relatively late to the consumer 3D printing arena, are clearly wanting to assert their dominance and capitalize on their (expensive) acquisition of Makerbot. Afina's profile on the other hand has been on an upwards trajectory of late, with its 3D printers recently voted "Best Overall Experience", "Easiest to Set Up", and "Easiest to Use" by Make Magazine.
With Afina holding a significant share of the desktop 3D printing market, Stratasys may be making an example of the company - if it can bring down the Afina 3D printer, funding for other similar printers supplied by smaller companies will likely dry up, and the mere threat of action may force others to pull out.
Afina was probably the best target to go for in order to generate a knock-on effect in the sector and was also the biggest threat to the revenues derived by Stratasys through Makerbot.
The response
On 2nd Jan 2014, Afina filed its response to the Stratasys lawsuit.
The company has made a demand for a jury trial citing several key issues:
  • Afina invites on all counts that Stratasys prove its claims,
  • Afina state that the contents of the patents at the time of their publication constituted common knowledge to any person having ordinary skill in the art,
  • also that the alleged inventions were already in use more than 1 year prior to the patent applications by Stratasys.
Moreover, Afina have stated that they are considering filing an antitrust claim against Stratasys.
In other words, Afina has come out fighting - for now at least. Whilst Afina may have a fair case against Stratasys, and granting of a patent by no means leaves it unchallengeable, the millions of dollars in legal fees that will be required to fight the lawsuit may well force Afina to settle or withdraw.
This action has not necessarily been a wise move on the part of Stratasys. The so-called "maker" community is fiercely protective of its open-sourced heritage and scathing against what it perceives as corporate throttling of the development of 3D printing.
Whilst Stratasys may well have a point, and would therefore be justified in protecting its IP in order to recoup its R&D costs, the fact that it has taken so long to take action - allowing for the unfettered sale of 10's of thousands of such printers to users who will potentially be left with unusable goods - will not best please either the maker community, or the industrial users of Afina's printers. The company's reputation would have been better maintained by swift action against any and all alleged patent infringers before they became well established with a developed installed base of printers.
Should Stratasys succeed in its case, either on merit or sheer financial staying power, both innovation and prices (of both printers and materials) in the desktop sector will suffer. The effective duopoly already prevalent in the industrial 3D printing sector will seep into the desktop arena and the natural consequences of a non-competitive market structure will begin to emerge.