Last week I discussed our involvement with Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) and that improvements in the technology were maturing. Today I’d like to reveal just a fraction of the history related to DMLS, and some key players in the field. It is a little rocky, and you can find some strategic plays, both successful and unsuccessful, if you read between the lines a bit.
Summarized History of 3D printing of Metal
Selective Laser Sintering was created and developed by Carl Deckard during his time at University of Texas at Austin. He began with the idea during his undergraduate degree, which ultimately came to life during his graduate and doctoral studies there. Deckard paired up with Dr. Joe Beeman, his professor, who played a key role in the development and support. Carl Deckard’s patent #US5597589 A (issued 28 Jan., 1997) defines the SLS process noted above.
The founders of SLS: Deckard, Beaman, and Forderhase (courtesy of University of Texas at Austin)
Deckard and a few other individuals formed NOVA Automation, which ultimately became DTM Corporation. In 1997, after numerous investment and development cycles, Goodrich Corp. sold their majority shares in DTM, which eventually ended up in the hands of 3D Systems. Along with this purchase, 3D Systems acquired the key patent rights to SLS, which played a large role in the company’s position as the “world’s leading provider of additive manufacturing technologies”.
Meanwhile EOS GmbH – Electro Optical Systems, a German company was founded by Dr. Hans Langer and Dr. Hans Steinbichler in 1989. Their company was developing similar technologies in the broad scope of additive manufacturing. In the same year that 3D Systems obtained the U.S. patent rights on SLS (1997), EOS and 3D Systems entered a key strategic agreement for both companies:
3D Systems purchased the Stereos product line (stereo lithographic 3D-printing of plastics technology) from EOS, and agreed to allow EOS to take over the global patent rights to the SLS technology. 3D Systems could corner the globe on stereo-lithographic printing of plastics, and EOS would hold the global rights to use the SLS patent, and would focus its research solely on that process.
EOS Founder Dr. Hans Steinbilcher 1989 (courtesy of EOS GmbH)
In 2013, EOS sued 3D Systems in US District Court over patent infringement by DTM in many areas of powder sintering. Many of the claims against DTM were upheld. EOS has continued to make significant strides in developing DMLS machines that largely (and dominantly) shape the DMLS market today.
Selective Laser Melting and the Patent Rights Monopoly
Selective Laser Melting on the other hand has had an odd, confusing, and painful history. The author at Additive3D.com said it best when they noted that it involved a “tortuous marketing path”. It goes something like this:
SLM was initially developed in 1995 at the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology (ILT) in Aachen, Germany (the basic ILT SLM patent DE 19649865). Dr. Dieter Schwarze and Dr. Matthias Fockele formed F&S Stereolithographietechnik GmbH , and worked together with other ILT research members to develop the commercial technology known today.
TRUMPF Group, who make some of my favorite metals manufacturing machinery, have been working on their own brand of SLM based on the ILT research, and currently hold the exclusive rights to the ILT direct metal laser melting patent portfolio (it pays to be tight with ILT!).
- In 2000 F&S and MCP HEK GmbH entered into a partnership, from which MCP ultimately took over commercialization rights.
- In the summer of 2002, Trumpf and EOS sign a cooperative patent cross-license agreement. The two companies have granted each other licenses to their patent portfolios for the field of direct metal laser melting which put the duo in the global driver’s seat for the use of this technology.
- In 2006, MCP HEK is first company to process aluminum and titanium powders in SLM
- In February 2008, EOS/Trumpf announced a patent license agreement with MCP, extending non-exclusive rights to certain EOS and Trumpf laser-sintering patents. These patents were relevant to MCP’s product line “Realizer”, but the agreement didn’t extend to North America.
- In February 2008 (immediately following EOS/Trumps – MCP agreement) 3D Systems and MCP announce a partnership initiative to distribute the MCP Realizer in the USA.
- In May of 2008, EOS filed the patent infringement lawsuit against MCP.
- Later in 2008, a portion of MCP spins off the MTT Technologies Group.
- In 2009 EOS/Trumpf reissue the MCP agreement (now as MTT), and cancelled the lawsuit… for an untold sum of moneyJ.
- In 2010, MTT Technologies Group (Germany) and MTT Technologies LTD (UK), separate commercially.
- In 2010, MTT LTD, sold Reinshaw PLC their line of SLM machinery.
- In 2011 MTT Group reforms as a private company under the label of SLM Solutions GmbH, which now sells their own brand of SLM machinery.
In summary, it’s been a rocky road of investments and getting caught with a hands in the cookie jar. EOS made numerous wise decisions, and prior to 2014, if you wanted to lase powdered metal, you’d need to call Germany. That said, something really interesting and significant happened this year; Deckard’s patent just expired! The gloves are coming off!
Some have indicated that the various patent expiration’s are not terribly significant. Regardless, the industry is moving quickly to develop this maturing technology, and in our article next week, we’ll point out 3 reasons why you should adopt DMLS now.
DMLS Sintering Dental Bridge at EOS (courtesy or EOS GmbH)
Eos GmbH and Solid Concepts have been quite helpful in numerous areas of my DMLS research. I want to extend this as a personal note of appreciation to their respective companies, and all the resources that they provided, as well as their research and professionalism in the field of metals manufacturing technology.
Additional sources include:
Business Wire press release – “3D Systems Launches Two Direct Metal Laser Sintering Systems based on MCP Tooling Technologies”
Deutsche Bank Markets Research on 3D Printing
3D Printing Industry (3Dprintingindustry.com) “Many 3D Printing Patents Are Expiring Soon: Here’s A Round Up & Overview of Them“