In the world of 3D printing, early innovators work hard to protect the value and investments made to obtain intellectual property. As consumer demand for affordable 3D printers grows, this emerging market will lure newcomers interested in participating in the potential for profitability that market offers.
Back in November, 3D printing giant Stratasys brought its own infringement action against the manufacturer of a consumer model 3D printer that competes with the offerings of Stratasys-owned MakerBot. Stratasys sued Microboards Technology, which does business as Afinia, claiming that Afinia’s H-Series 3D Printer infringes several patents Stratasys holds directed to Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM).
In fact, Stratasys has alleged that Afinia’s H-Series printer is a rebranded version of an UP! 3D printer, manufactured by Delta Micro Factory Corporation. The H-Series low price has made it a popular choice with universities as well as provided a functionality and ease of use that earned it selection in 2012 as “Best Overall” by 3D printing publication “Make Magazine.” Though Stratasys has not sued the OEM, this litigation could be part of a strategy to combat the threat Stratasys faces from low-cost 3D printers manufactured in China and marketed through U.S. licensing agreements. Although there is a great deal of tension amongst alternative suppliers, it is still not clear if there is any claim in the Stratasys lawsuit that is specific to the Afina 3D printer. A spokesperson from Afinia emphasized the fact that the company does not license 3D printing technology from Beijing Tier Tim, but it has an OEM/Distribution agreement with Tier Time.
Afina was the best target to go after in order to generate a knock-on effect in the sector and was the biggest threat to the revenues derived by Stratasys through Makerbot. On January 2nd, Afina filed its response to the Stratasys lawsuit, making a demand for a jury trial citing a number of issues. Afina invites on all counts that Stratasys prove its claims, states that the contents of the patents at the time of their publication constituted common knowledge to any person having ordinary skill in the art, and the alleged inventions were already in use more than one year prior to the patent applications by Stratasys.
Further, Afinia stated that it is considering filing an antitrust claim against Stratasys. While Afina may have a case against Stratasys, the millions of dollars in legal fees that will be required to fight the lawsuit might force Afinia to settle or withdraw.
While Stratasys may have a point, the fact that it has taken so long to take action -- allowing for the sale of 10's of thousands of such printers to users who will potentially be left with unusable goods -- will not please the users of Afinia's printers. The company's reputation would have been better maintained by action against any alleged patent infringers before they became well established with a developed installed base of printers.
As the recent claims brought by Stratasys and 3D Systems illustrate, patent infringement litigation will remain a real risk to these newcomers’ chances for any real ongoing profitability.
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