2014 is the year, that many believe, will be explosive for the advancement in 3D printing technology. The reason being the US patent for “Apparatus for producing parts by selective sintering” expired at the beginning of the year. This is one of the core patents related to 3D printing, allowing 3D printing companies to charge exorbitant rates for the fine nylon powder used in the application.
The expensive consumables used in 3D printing has been a major barrier to progressive innovation in the field. Selective laser sintering (SLS) creates a fine finish that the patent-free fused deposition modeling technique used in RepRap-style printers can’t duplicate. The items produced by laser sintering are of a high resolution in all three dimensions, which can produce goods that can be sold as finished products to consumers.
There is expected to be a huge drop in the price of 3D laser sintering devices in the near future. This expectation is based on what happened when the key patents on the more primitive fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printer expired. The result was an explosion of open-source FDM printers that eventually led to iconic home and hobbyist 3D printer manufacturer Makerbot.
Within only a few years of the expiration of the patents, the price of the cheapest FDM printers fell from several thousand dollars to as little as $300. This lead to a massive demand for hobbyist-level 3D printers and injected a huge amount of interest into the fledgling movement of home manufacturing operations that produce one object at a time.
SLS printers can offer significant upgrades over the current economy 3D printers because they don’t rely on a traditional extruder to control the modeling material. This slow and inherently inaccurate process imposes a fairly hard limit on resolution, and greatly restricts the materials with which can be printed. FDM printers have mainly used plastics, like ABS to create items. Now printing with more innovative materials, including carbon fiber is now becoming a reality.
SLS printers use a high-powered laser to fuse small particles of material, almost as fine as aerosol, to the object being printed. When this technology comes down in cost, even a fraction of the percentage that FDM did, the ability to print 3D items at home will finally be realized. At least that is what many are hoping will happen. On the other side of the fence, some believe that since SLS printers require high-powered precision lasers, there is no guarantee that the technology will drop in price as significantly as the FDM printers did.
However, these same questions were raised when the patents on FDM 3D printers expired as well and now they can be purchased for a fraction of their original costs. This just goes to show that not only is anything possible, but there are also many options available to greatly reduce the cost of the SLS printers so that they are easily affordable for anyone who wants one. One thing is for certain, 3D printing technology is the future of several industries.