Sunday, June 15, 2014

Op-Ed: MakerBot's Chance at Redemption


MakerBot is a company that has been both influential and troubling in the eyes of the maker community. Although MakerBot has created many new and interesting 3D printers and other products, such as the 3D file sharing site Thingiverse, it has also taken many controversial steps away from the open-source movement from which it has grown.

Recently, MakerBot has filed patents that appear to be similar to other art that has been created by the open-source community, including a patent on Extruder Head Force Detection and a Quick Release Extruder. Auto bed-leveling is one of the most interesting new developments in 3D printing, and the "Extruder Head Force Detection" patent claims a work with "An extruder ... [that] is instrumented to detect contact force against the extruder, such as by a build platform or an object being fabricated." This means that the extruder is moved around the print surface to determine how level the print will be.

This is all well and good, besides that prior art could already be found by Steve Graber before the application was filed. The quick release extruder also has been discovered to have prior art. This means that the application has a chance at getting rejected because it has already been created (i.e. that the patent is not a new idea). Although the method above is only one of many ways to level beds automatically, the fact that MakerBot is attempting to shove its way into new developments through patent law is truly hurting the entire 3D printer market.

Modern Open-Source Development

Open-source development is in it for the consumers. Through it, companies can benefit from each others' designs and create a better product for everyone. The beginning of the 3D printer movement was sparked by the expiration of patents (mainly the 2009 expiration of the FDM patent), so that 3D printing technology could begin to be sold to consumers freely. Many groups and companies, like Lulzbot, RepRap, and Fab@Home were then able to collaborate freely and share ideas that led to development. The removal of patents here helped spark innovation.

One of the hugest open-source developments outside of the 3D printer market came recently, when Elon Musk of Tesla Motors announced that he would open-source all of his electric car patents. This step brought new life into the market by helping other companies to share in their own ideas. By making restricted information free, Musk transformed a market with closed doors into a more open, more free playing field.

The point here is that MakerBot is playing the game wrong. The whole roots of the maker movement from which MakerBot has been created have been in support of the sharing and open use of information. Even though MakerBot can take their company in a different direction than open-source, the use of patent law to inhibit other companies from innovating stifles competition and hurts the community that wants 3D printing to flourish.

MakerBot is bringing a gun to a knife fight- the smaller, open-source companies such as Lulzbot don't want to stifle competition or file patents. In fact, the filing of patents by power players such as MakerBot could lead to a more closed market- everyone would try to grab onto any patent that they can get to gain an edge over the competition.

What MakerBot Can Do

At the very least, MakerBot needs to stop attempting to patent key ideas in the 3D printing market that are not original. This sort of action would allow innovation to still occur in the personal, communal, and corporate parts of the 3D printer market, without having people worrying about the removal of important new designs and ideas from the free exchange of information.

One of the things that would truly save MakerBot from its public downward slide in the eyes of the maker movement would be to release all of its patents as open source, similar to the way that Tesla Motors has released their patents.

However, one of the main reasons that MakerBot has filed patents is to keep their ideas safe. Instead of releasing all of their patents to everyone, MakerBot could instead follow the model of Red Hat and only allow their patents to be used in open-source projects. This means that MakerBot, if they manage to come up with something original, could share the new idea with the rest of the market, allowing more innovation to occur.

Does this hurt MakerBot? In the short term, probably. They would not be able to gain as much from their patents by allowing other companies and groups to use their work. However, I think that the ability to freely share patents among open-source projects would benefit MakerBot in the end, because the rest of the 3-D printing market will be more open to giving back to MakerBot. This could help create more innovation and progress for everyone.

Works Cited

Banwatt, Paul. "3D Printing Patents Expire - RepRap Moves In." Law in the Making. N.p., 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 June 2014. <>.
Doctorow, Cory. "What's the story with the Makerbot patent?." Boing Boing. N.p., 30 May 2014. Web. 15 June 2014. <>.
Graber, Steve. "I made a bed leveling probe." Google Plus. N.p., 6 Oct. 2013. Web. 15 June 2014. <>.
Molitch-Hou, Michael. "Open Source Automated Build Platform Turns 3D Printer into 3D Factory." 3D Printing Industry. N.p., 20 Oct. 2013. Web. 15 June 2014. <>.
RichRap. "Makerbot Patents twist the knife on open source 3D Printing roots, community responds.." Reprap development and further adventures in DIY 3D printing. Blogger, 28 May 2014. Web. 15 June 2014. <>.
Terence. "Stay classy, Makerbot." OpenBeam USA. N.p., 23 May 2014. Web. 15 June 2014. <>.