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In recent years, 3D printing has entered the mainstream lexicon, partly due to increased media coverage and partly because 3D printers are becoming more affordable and accessible. In particular, the rise of desktop 3D printers aimed at the domestic market such as the MakerBot Replicator and 3D Systems Cube have been a boon for hobbyists and early adopters. These printers are sold ready to use out of the box for simplicity compared to early affordable solutions which were self-assemble kits like the MakerGear Mosaic or the open source RepRap Mendel.
Typically, low cost domestic 3D printers, including those mentioned above, use an additive manufacturing technique called Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) to create objects. FDM involves a heated nozzle extruding thermoplastic into successive layers to build up a desired object.
The McKinsey Global Institute, The Economist and Quartz, along with many others, cite the expiration of certain patents related to FDM in 2009 as enabling the recent proliferation of cheaper FDM 3D printers. They go on to anticipate that the expiration of key patents related to another additive manufacturing technique, selective laser sintering, in 2014 may lead to another step change in the field of 3D printing.
But what are these key patents that everyone’s talking about, and will they really make such a big impact?