On the 18th April, Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman of the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled in favour of 3D Systems regarding the antitrust case brought against it by chemical giant DSM Desotech. This is unfortunate news for the future of 3D printing for reasons which are discussed in detail in the IDTechEx report 3D Printing Materials 2014-2025: Status, Opportunities, Market Forecasts.
DSM, who manufacture a range of photosensitive polymers (the DSM Somos range) suitable for use with the stereolithography technology of 3D Systems, claimed that its customer base for 3D printing resins had declined subsequent to 3D Systems application of RFID tags to its 3D printers. The tags are designed to communicate with a transmitter on the cap of a resin bottle and will shut the machine down if a non-3D Systems resin is used. The system is smart enough to prevent any obvious attempts at by-pass.
DSM argued that the practice constituted anti-competitive behaviour and that the company was acting to restrain free competition in the market. It requested the court that this restrictive practice should be prohibited.
This of course is a restatement of the age-old generic consumables argument and mirrors in many respects the ruling of the European Commission late last year that inkjet printer manufacturers (specifically HP, Lexmark, Canon and Epson) were not behaving in an anti-competitive manner in locking customers in to their own (expensive) ink supplies.
There is a key difference between these rulings however. The Commission argued that since none of the companies cited hold a dominant position in the primary market (for inkjet printers) none therefore could hold a dominant position in the secondary market for consumables. Customers could choose their (largely undifferentiated) printer taking into account the cost of the ink cartridges they would later be required to purchase.
The US ruling however was based on a decision by the Judge that stereolithography did not constitute an actual market, or even sub-market, in its own right since alternative 3D printing technologies are available - this, in spite of the fact that 3D Systems is the only supplier of stereolithography 3D printers in the USA and by far the dominant supplier world-wide. Effectively, the Judge has ruled that all 3D printer technologies are interchangeable.
3D Systems concurred with the Judgement, which is surprising in light of the fact that it proffers on its own website "...help choosing the best 3D printer for your application..."
Whilst there are of course similarities in terms of process among different 3D printing technologies, as many end-users will be aware, not all printers are equally fit-for-the-same-purpose. Stereolithography is one of the highest resolution approaches to 3D printing and as such, is much beloved by design engineers for prototyping purposes. Mechanical engineers however prefer the fused deposition modelling approach which employs the engineering thermoplastics with which they are familiar.
Each 3D printing technology is compatible with a different class of materials which will have differing temperature resistance, tensile strength, elongation at break, chemical resistance etc. and end-users will need to match their application to their material, resolution and other requirements and choose a technology accordingly. Simply choosing the cheapest printer with an adequate build-volume would likely constitute a costly mistake.
The Judge found that 3D Systems employed RFID tagging at least in part to "...provide its customers with useful functionality" and further that there was "...no evidence that 3DS was limiting resin variety or charging supracompetitive prices for SL resin."
This is entirely in contradiction to the experience of this author in interviewing numerous 3D printing end-users across various sectors - all of whom considered that material prices were inflated and that material development was painfully slow. Some complained that "new" resins were simply "relabeling" of an old product and others have even gone so far as to employ "chip-unlockers" who have the required expertise to by-pass the system, effectively a community of 3D printer hackers has emerged. It is hard to imagine how the inability of end-users to choose their own resin supplier constitutes "useful functionality".
This ruling leaves the door wide open for the practice of lock-in to continue, and probably increase. Small and innovative materials suppliers, some of whom are already struggling as a direct result of lock-in, may consolidate or even face closure. Materials prices for 3D printing will remain at a premium level and materials development continue to crawl along with the low incentives towards innovation. The judgement may have been in favour of 3D Systems, but it certainly isn't in favour of 3D printing.
Top image: KBB