/ creation-2 Bre Pettis, fallen prophet of 3D printing? (screen capture). © Print the Legend

The accidental history of 3D printing

From frenzy to strokes of genius to missed opportunities, the industrial history of additive manufacturing is a spiky journey to the present. The second part of our investigation on the state of the art of digital fabrication focuses on the technological and industrial issues of the market.

Find the myth

Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, is convinced: 3D printing will be bigger than the Web. Everywhere in the world, his prophecy has been making waves. In 2014, the multi-award-winning documentary Print the Legend highlighted the spectacular rise of additive manufacturing as the “Macintosh moment”. When it premiered at the South By Southwest festival, the two directors Luis Lopez and Clay Tweel said they wanted to identify the next Steve Jobs and understand “the archetype created around this legendary entrepreneur”. They found the perfect avatar in Bre Pettis, charismatic founder of Makerbot, who made the cover of Wired as early as September 2012, barely a year after the death of the founder of Apple.

“Print the Legend”, documentary by Luis Lopez and Clay Tweel (trailer, 2014):

Patent war is declared

But at the same time, pioneer Makerbot’s success story was already starting to flail. Why? Because of the almost simultaneous launch in September 2014 of the Replicator 2, a 4th generation 3D printer that, unlike its predecessors, was no longer open source but still incorporated all the technical improvements developed by its contributors. Behind the scenes, a change in conditions requiring them to give up their moral rights was poorly received by the community.

“When you’re a maker, deciding to earn a living from intellectual property rights or to make your creations open source in order to benefit the community is a personal choice; it’s not up to a company to do it for you,” comments Aude Vivès-Albertini, a lawyer specialized in intellectual property and new media. “This behavior is deplorable, we must denounce these patents and use citizen vigilance to end this abuse.”

For in the technology war that has broken out in the 3D printing market, industry players are registering patents left and right to occupy the R&D field and break the momentum of their competitors, creating complex systems by undue monopolies. This reflex is already well known in the telecom industry. “It’s Samsung and its cascading patents,” adds Vivès-Albertini. “Let’s not forget that in 3D printing, a good number of patents are registered, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re valid…”

“Open source is an open breach.”

François Brument, designer

The Makerbot polemic is (inversely) reminiscent of the history of computers, when the proprietary licences of the first computer giants in the early 1980s were confronted and jostled by the advent of open software. But it also questions the viability of an economic model based on open source hardware. More than any other technology, 3D printing is still operating in unknown industrial and economic territory, somewhere between patents and open licences, commercial sector and collaborative model.

While additive manufacturing heralds a profound mutation in the paradigms of conception, production and consumption, it also marks the emergence of unprecedented hybrid standards for industry players. “The notion of a standard that defines the current industrial chain of production is being challenged,” writes François Brument, designer and curator of 3D printing: factory of the future, in the catalogue of the first major exhibition in France on additive manufacturing.

Other hiccups punctuate the turbulent history of 3D printing and its patents. First up, the birth certificate of the technology itself. On July 16, 1984, French researchers at the Compagnie générale d’électricité, future Alcatel, register their patent for stereolithography at the National Institute for Intellectual Property (INPI). Unfortunately, the Compagnie doesn’t believe in it any more than the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and doesn’t renew the patent maintenance fees. Three weeks later, Chuck Hull, American founder of the global giant 3D Systems, registers his own patent. Thereafter, 3D printing becomes American.

From saturation to concentration?

In 2013, seduced by the potential of 3D printing, the investment bank Goldman Sachs gave the rising technology a prominent place in its report on “creative destructors”—new sectors that revolutionize then swallow solidly entrenched markets, cynically ranking 3D printing behind e-cigarettes, cancer immunotherapy and LED lighting.

As 3D printing start-ups begin to swarm, Stratasys and 3D Systems consolidate their dominant positions by investing massively in R&D and reinforcing their acquisition strategies. Their favorite hunting grounds are activities with high margins, such as 3D printing services, materials, design platforms and printer manufacturers.

“There are more than 100 platforms. The market is already saturated, but the demand isn’t following!”

Mathilde Berchon, author of “L’Impression 3D”

The vertical integration strategies ultimately accelerate market concentration. It’s the same trend experienced by the gaming industry, now dominated by the trio Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft.

3D Systems was the first to launch the offensive. Between 2010 and 2014, the group acquired some 50 companies, including Freedom of Creation (started by the designer Janne Kytannen, who is now art director at 3D Systems) in 2011, Z Corporation in 2012, Figulo Coporation, specialized in printing ceramics, the French Phenix Systems and filament manufacturer Village Plastics in 2013.


But the biggest media scoop was when Stratasys bought Makerbot in 2013 for $400 million. When asked about the group’s strategy, Eric Bredin, director of Stratasys France, replies: “As a company 100% dedicated to 3D printing and publicly aspiring to global leadership, our great strength is based on 140,000 machines worldwide, whose users feedback a lot of information on their needs in applications and development. Few players have the benefit of this ‘precious gem.”

Essential? Yes, but…

And yet, the 3MF Consortium was created without the two world leaders of 3D printing. Behind this hydra is a worldwide agreement among seven giants of the technology sector (Microsoft, Shapeways, Hewlett-Packard, Autodesk, Netfabb, Dassault Systems and SLM Solutions), allied to “democratize 3D printing and make it more accessible to companies and individuals”. Yet only one 3D printer manufacturer is among them: SLM Solutions. It’s Microsoft’s turn to take the offensive by launching the 3MF format in May 2015, supposedly more universal than its STL and OBJ predecessors. Yet another way of imposing your standards on the market…

The giants of distribution are not far behind. While waiting for an opportune moment, in late August 2015 Amazon registered the domain name amazon3Dprinting.com. It may be an empty shell for now, but it’s a strong symbolic signal for platforms such as Sculpteo and Shapeways. The future of 3D printing will be written with its industry players—along with the others.

Read part 1 of our investigation into 3D printing

Makery newsletter

Biweekly, all the labs news you need to know.