Today is a big day for 3D printing: Patent #US5597589 is set to expire and will open up the possibility for makers to use laser sintering — shooting a laser at a layer of nylon powder — in cheaper devices, essentially opening the technology to the small maker.
The patent is fairly clear on what sintering is. It describes an “apparatus for selectively sintering a layer of powder to produce a part made from a plurality of sintered layers and the apparatus includes a computer controlling a laser to direct the laser energy onto the powder to produce a sintered mass.” This means anything that shoots a laser at powder could run afoul of this patent much as Form Labs bumped up against 3D Systems’ stereolithography patent.
Most larger “professional-quality” printers use laser sintering and you can create homogenous, solid-looking objects with stable structures using the technique.
Does this mean we’ll have sintering printers in our homes next year? Possibly, but given the materials needed and the components involved I could see prices going down but not dropping until there is mass acceptance of 3D printing. FDM printers that deposit layers of plastic is still the cheapest method, but sintered parts are almost seamless, creating a cohesive whole that is very useful in prototyping and engineering. In short, however, it’s a great day for makers.