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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

Markforged Prevails In 3D Printer IP Lawsuit

 
August 2nd, 2018 by Jeff Rowe

Markforged, a 3D printer manufacturer, announced this week that following a 21-day trial, a jury in the United States District Court, District of Massachusetts, Boston, unanimously found that Markforged did not infringe any claims of IP belonging to Desktop Metal, another developer of 3D printing machines.

Desktop Metal had filed a patent infringement lawsuit against rival metal 3D printing company Markforged. Markforged responded, saying it “categorically denies” the allegations. Markforged responded to those allegations, denying any wrongdoing and responded with its own court filings. Desktop Metal sought significant damages from Markforged.

Desktop Metal CEO Ric Fulop said: “We believe Markforged products clearly utilize technology patented by Desktop Metal and we will do what is necessary to protect our IP and our company.”

Desktop Metal had claimed that the manner in which the Markforged Metal X printer forms ceramic release layers in order to print complex parts infringed on their patents. After deliberating for less a day, the jury returned a complete non-infringement verdict, finding that Markforged did not infringe and had not induced or contributed to infringement by its customers.

In a nutshell, the lawsuit alleged that Markforged used Desktop Metal’s patented technologies on the Metal X 3D printer, specifically technologies relating to support structure breakaway.

The most relevant Desktop Metal patents, numbers 9,815,118 and 9,833,839, were first put to use in Desktop Metal’s Studio and Production 3D printing systems. In its legal complaint, Desktop Metal compares the patented technology to apparently similar technology used in Markforged’s Metal X 3D printer.

Other patents referenced in the case included:
9,815,118 – Fabricating multi-part assemblies
9,833,839 – Fabricating an interface layer for removable support
5,182,056 – Stereolithography method and apparatus employing various penetration depths
5,182,170 – Method of producing parts by selective beam interaction of powder with gas phase reactant
5,204,055 – Three-dimensional printing techniques
5,242,098 – Method of explosively bonding composite metal structures
5,286,573 – Method and support structures for creation of objects by layer deposition
5,387,380 – Three-dimensional printing techniques
5,496,682 – Three dimensional sintered inorganic structures using photopolymerization

For Markforged, this verdict validates the history of independently developed IP that has fueled its year-over-year growth. To date, Markforged has 100 filed patent applications and 15 issued patents, the most recent of which – US Patent 10,000,011 – was issued last month.

Announced in 2017, the Markforged Metal X 3D printing system is transforming the way businesses approach their manufacturing operations, amidst a quickly growing metal 3D market that IDTechEx estimates will be worth $12B by 2028. Markforged Metal X customers print end-use parts that the company claims are 50% lighter and 95% faster than other part creation processes.

Greg Mark, founder and CEO of Markforged, said, “I founded Markforged in my kitchen six years ago. I dreamt of giving every engineer the ability to 3D print real, functional, mechanical parts. We invented something that had never existed before — a continuous carbon fiber 3D printer. Our Metal X product is an extension of that platform. We’ve come a long way. We now have the most advanced technology platform in 3D printing, and I’m incredibly proud of what our team of engineers have accomplished. A competitor filed a lawsuit against us, including various far-fetched allegations. Markforged categorically denies these allegations and we will be formally responding shortly in our own court filing”.

“Markforged printers have changed the way businesses produce strong parts while dramatically impacting the delivery times, cost, and supply chain logistics.” said Mark. “We feel gratified that the jury found we do not infringe, and confirmed that the Metal X, our latest extension of the Markforged printing platform, is based on our own proprietary Markforged technology.”

Something struck me as weird with this whole legal debacle. Ironically, the Desktop Metal CEO was on the Markforged board, he left and started Desktop Metal, and less than two years later Markforged announced the Metal X with prototype parts. Likely both parties had worked on this particular project for a while. I just wonder how much the Desktop Metal CEO knew before he left the Markforged board.

Although patent infringement lawsuits like this are nothing new, and will certainly continue, I’m torn. On the one hand, lawsuits like this do the industry no good. I wasn’t so sure the patents would hold up considering that using a binder that gets “sintered” out is not novel to 3D printers – that science has been around a long time. The fact they are pushing it out of a nozzle into shapes also does not make it unique.

On the other hand, to the extent these companies are relying on external investment, and to the extent patents mean the company experiences less competition and is worth more in case of liquidation, patents can accelerate the industry.

Desktop Metal has raised well over $200 million in investment, and obviously some of that was on the based of the value of its patents.

Ultimately, I wasn’t so sure the patents would hold up considering that using a binder that gets “sintered” out is not unique to 3D printers. A quick scan of the two patents in question makes them look a little deeper than just that. I’m not sure how unique they truly are, but it’s more than just “binder + sintering.” However, that does make it unique, as long as they properly reference prior art. That’s how patents work.

Without reading the independent claims of the patents in question, its impossible to know how good or bad the patents are. And unless you’re experienced in reading patents (either because you’ve been trained in it or are a patent attorney), it’s hard to really determine the specific set of claims, just because of how obtuse they’re written. I did a quick skim of the claims in both and didn’t see anything that seemed unusually broad, and they do reference a number of prior patents. One of them, for example, has a few independent claims, but they all are clones of the first one.

That’s not about sintering material with a binder, its specifically about how to do so with two parts in close proximity with them maintaining their mechanical association, but without becoming bound by the binder. All the dependent claims derive from that, and the other independent claims call out specific materials to use as the interface to prevent the bonding of the two sintered parts. That is not obvious, and is justifiably patentable.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on developments in the Desktop Metal versus Markforged case because it certainly won’t be the last.

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