3D Printers Might Get Way Cheaper After 2014

The 3D printing "revolution" isn't just being held up by the state of the technology. It's also being held up by the sheer cost of a 3D printer. But in February 2014, some key patents will expire, leaving an opening for competitors come in with cheaper alternatives.

The patents in question are for a technology called "laser sintering," the lowest-cost 3D printing technique. Laser sintering produces items in very high resolution, which means they can be sold as finished products, and they're much higher quality than that flimsy novelty stuff you can make on current 3D printers on the market.

There's some historical evidence that these patents expiring will help move 3D printing along. Fused deposition modeling is another more base-level form of 3D printing tech. Patents for FDM expiring directly led to the creation of a massive number of open-source FDM printers, as well as the eventual creation of one of the biggest names in 3D printing, Makerbot. What's more is that prices on FDM machines dropped from several thousand dollars to as low as $300 within a few years of the patents going defunct. And this is pretty much what led to the maker movement as it is now.

“This is what happened with FDM,” Shapeways design evangelist Duann Scott told Quartz. “As soon as the patents expired, everything exploded and went open-source, and now there are hundreds of FDM machines on the market. An FDM machine was $14,000 five years ago and now it’s $300.”

You could compare this situation to prescription drugs. They're generally very expensive until a patent expires, at which point other pharmaceutical companies can come in and make a generic version of a drug for a fraction of the cost. We could see something similar happen with 3D printers.

3D printing hasn't quite changed the world. But next year, we're just might see history repeat itself, bringing us printers real people can actually afford. Then maybe that 3D printing revolution will arrive. [Quartz]