3D Printing

Courting the Materials Market

There is a slight quandary for the producers of products that require peripherals. Is it better to open the market to those peripherals or conduct a more closed approach? The former allows the potential of a competitive market fighting to lower costs whilst increasing quality, the latter produces the ability to produce a tight-knit quality control and, to a degree, control prices. Between these poles there are many degrees of ‘the best of both worlds.’ For a machine that produces output, input ‘peripherals are required. And here our story begins.

Stereolithography (SLA) was the first additive manufacturing process and SLA machines process liquid polymer resin. Today’s 3D printing behemoth, 3D Systems, was the company that invented, developed and commercialised the SLA process. Back in 1983 when the process was invented this was an unusual way of creating objects. Now there is a wide range of other processes that create using additive technology. Back in the eighties, when VHS was amazing and computer gaming was about moving a few fairly undefinable pixels around, stereolithography was universally targeted at prototyping applications.

When new ideas for products are incepted, the design process is augmented by being able to hold a visualisation of the product-in-development in one’s hands. The term Rapid Prototyping has been the primary descriptor for 3D printing until relatively recently, when the range of technologies that may be roughly grouped under a banner of ‘adding bits together to make things’ have generically become known as 3D printing in the popular consciousness – in part because parts themselves can be imparted now thanks to improvements in additive processes. It is worth noting that the term ‘rapid prototyping’ itself is not limited to additive processes, subtracting bits to make things, which is the way that most items mankind has ever created have been formed, also contribute ways of making prototypes. Stereolithography is relatively simple, and relatively inexpensive. It has become relatively popular.

3D Systems continues to manufacture SLA machines, and dominate the market, along with a range of other machines and processes following acquisitions. It is the sole supplier of industrial SLA machines in the US. Users of SLA machines include 3D print providing service bureaus, academic researchers, government, military, and further to a patent infringement and consequential court case, home desktop 3D printer users.

Now that we are all vaguely on the same page of understanding the terms, let’s close in on the case in hand.

Around 2005 3D Systems began equipping a selection of its range of SLA machines with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) allowing the machine to communicate wirelessly with a transmitter on the cap of a resin bottle. The machines shut down if the onboard software detects that the resin the user has attempted to input is not approved by 3D Systems. DSM Desotech had two resins approved for use in these machines. The two companies entered negotiations for the approval of additional Desotech resins but those negotiations broke down. From there Desotech filed a lawsuit.

DSM Desotech alleged a number of violations by 3D Systems including unreasonable restraint of trade and monopolisation. Desotech also alleged a state law claim for violation of the Illinois Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Desotech produced “millions of pages of documents” in support of its allegations.

3D Systems proposed that DSM Desotech had not provided sufficient specific evidence that SLA machines and resin constitute an independent market, that their conduct had not been anticompetitive and that Desotech had not suffered an injury regarding the antitrust claims. The court found the failure of proof dis-positive and granted summary judgement against Desotech on all of its antitrust claims.

The district court granted summary judgement of two of DSM Desotech’s state law claims. Also the court found that Desotech could not prove that 3D System’s statements were false regarding the Illinois Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Regarding Desotech’s claim for tortuous interference with prospective economic advantage the court found that Desotech could not show that 3D System’s actions were ‘motivated solely by spite or ill will.’

As you might expect, the companies are still not quite seeing eye-to-eye.

Avi Reichental, President and CEO, of 3D Systems said:“Our integrated printing systems and materials provide significant customer benefits. We are pleased with this decision confirming that DSM Desotech’s allegations were meritless.”

Sean Dsilva, Vice-President of New Business Development at DSM Functional Materials stated: “DSM products touch many industries and we see numerous possibilities for us to contribute to additive manufacturing beyond our current stereolithography activities. We will continue to explore opportunities and partnerships to create new ways to innovate and further develop additive manufacturing.”

NB: SLA is the trademarked acronym of Stereolithography by 3D Systems. Any acronym reference to stereolithography that is not from 3DS is SL.