The Man Who Killed 3D Printing?

Will Chris Norman’s 3D Printing Patent Kill The Golden Goose? Nope…

Chris Norman has obtained a fairly comprehensive patent on a standard process used by nearly every one of the growing number of online 3D printing service bureaus.

In a nutshell, the process goes like this: Take an existing 3D model, tweak it for various custom elements and then have it 3D printed.

Sounds familiar, right? That’s because similar processes are available at Shapeways, Materialise, 3D Systems, Thingiverse and Norman’s own and Digital Factory.

So what does it mean to be in control of a patent like this one? Are we looking at a Marconi v. Tesla battle over radio? A Flash of Genius moment ala Robert Kearns? Kearns won perhaps the best known patent infringement case in history against Ford Motor Company and a subsequent similar case against Chrysler Corporation.

Having invented and patented the intermittent windshield wiper mechanism, Kearns tried (and failed) to interest the Big Three auto makers in licensing his technology. Each of them rejected his proposals, but went on to install intermittent wipers in their cars. Kearns spent the rest of his life fighting in court to reap the rewards he thought were protected by his patent.

After years of shepherding the application through the often byzantine and painfully slow process of applying for a US patent, Norman appears to have hit the honey spot. There are literally millions of patents applied for and granted – some of them related to 3D printing – and in other hands, this might have set off a firestorm in the world of AM and 3D printing.

If you read this the same way I did, the abstract of the patent is fairly comprehensive and it covers:

“Methods and systems for designing and producing a three-dimensional object selection of a base three-dimensional object from a customer device. A base three-dimensional model corresponding to the object is displayed on the customer device, and one or more custom modifications are received.

A modified three-dimensional model corresponding to the modified object is prepared and displayed. Once confirmation to produce the modified object is received, data corresponding to the modified three-dimensional model is transmitted to a manufacturing device for production of the object, using the data to do so, such that the object corresponds directly to the modified three-dimensional model.”

If you read on, and reading a patent grant or application is dry stuff even for the attorneys who deal in them daily, it seems Norman might have himself a fairly valuable piece of intellectual property on his hands, but he doesn’t see it that way, at least in the short term.

So does he plan to aggressively seek to enforce his patents? Norman says he holds six of them relating to various elements of the industry.

“I want to be known as a facilitator and not as a demon,” Norman said. “I am the furthest thing from a patent troll. I was asked this question at RAPID last year. My response was that the opportunity for 3D printing is absolutely enormous. Kraftwurx is agnostic to all 3D printing technologies.”

“If it is commercially viable, we will consider it for use. Our primary goal is to empower everyone and help grow the 3D printing industry as a whole. Our approach is to put this technology into the hands of small businesses worldwide and our business model clearly confirms and supports this goal.”

Norman, a 41-year-old graduate of Texas A&M University with a BS in Manufacturing Engineering and an MBA in Technology Management, comes from a long line of entrepreneurs. His mother, Bonnie and his aunt, Debbie, “came from humble beginnings” and went on to start, run and sell multiple businesses. They did well enough to make the front cover of Texas Monthly Magazine in 1980 for their work in the oil and gas industry.

Norman’s grandfather, Bob, ran four John Deere dealerships for over 50 years. Another aunt and uncle run a successful lumber company. Norman’s brother, Wayland, runs a computer company.

According to Norman, the story begins in 2001. He said he drew inspiration from nascent ecommerce websites such as Vistaprint and Customatix. Following those models, he wrote a business plan during 2003 and 2004 while he was a student in grad school and pitched the model to the Department of Defense in 2005 through the SBIR program.

It was a year later, in 2005, that Norman wrote the patent application. He filed for the patent in April 2006 while he was working at Dell and had access to all of the latest and greatest in computer tech.

“I felt that computing power was limiting as was software for in-browser 3D viewing,” Norman says. “I had seen early 3D viewing technology using Active X, but it was crude. Graphics were limited and network bandwidth at home was much slower than it is today.”

A family tragedy and life events like the loss of his job at the time meant the patent project went on the back burner.

“I continued working on patents and technology as time allowed,” Norman said. “After looking for a turnkey way to do so, I gave up after realizing that it did not exist. That’s when I came up with the name Digital Factory™ and created the business model software solution which is essentially Kraftwurx or Shapeways or i.materialise in a box. Our business model uses independent 3D printing facilities located around the world to produce parts locally. We put money into people’s pockets in local communities by supporting local 3D printing.”

3D printable, fully functional gear ring designed by Marco Valenzuela:

So what would constitute a win for Norman and Kraftwurx as a result of gaining his patents?

“A win for Kraftwurx would be to license our technology and then do what we do best; focus on being the company behind the success of others that push forward on the 3D printing revolution,” Norman said.

“By developing the software that makes it possible for any company to adopt some level of use of 3D printing into their retail or commercial process, we’d be happy to be known like Applied Materials is known for semiconductors.”

Kraftwürx is located in a suburb on the northwest side of Houston, Texas, in a 15,000 square foot facility and employs nine people. Privately held, Norman said he’d prefer that annual sales figures for his companies remain private as well. He did say that his package of solutions can run from a modest $49 a month for a smaller installation all the way up to and beyond $25,000 for enterprise-level implementations.

“3D printing will begin affecting a lot more industries,” Norman says. “It will slowly creep into our lives all over and eventually a few industries will be transformed by it. 3D Printing is simply a new manufacturing process. Not the Holy Grail, but where it does make an impact, it will certainly make a big one.”

As for the future of the technology he’s dedicated the last 20 years of his life to advancing, Norman sees nothing but vast potential – and not without risk.

“The big question I have is when a machine can use atoms to make say, gold, what happens to the world’s economy?” Norman said. “I think intellectual property becomes much more important.”

Norman is an old hand in manufacturing and 3D printing. He says the moment, back in 2004, when he was watching his oldest son, Austin, playing a video game provided him with an epiphany. That vision, consumers co-designing their own products and designers creating 3D models that themselves became products through printing, was a stunner.

“It (3D printing) would radically alter supply chains, something I was intimately familiar with at Dell,” Norman said. “It was LEAN, Just-In-Time manufacturing taken to its ultimate end goal. On-Demand, digital manufacturing changes everything.”

His introduction to actual 3D printing came in 1994 as he pursued his studies at Texas A&M.

“I witnessed both LOM (Layered Object Manufacturing with paper) and Stereolithography firsthand,” Norman said. “The Unviversity of Texas was working on SLS – which became 3D systems after it was DTM. I know both Joe Beaman and Carl Dekkard, the guys who invented it. The first time I saw SLS was much later though.”

It was pioneers like Beaman, Dekkard, Carl Dekker, David K. Leigh – along with Michael Dell – who inspired him to try and keep innovating because they “simply didn’t give up.”

“I think 3D printing will see breakthroughs occur. There is no shortage of research going on. I think the one thing that is overshadowed though is home Making. It’s a great hobby product but manufacturers should manufacture, designers should design and consumers should consume,” Norman says.

“There’s a tremendous amount of product testing and research that goes into consumer products. Electrical conductivity testing, thermal testing, shock and vibe testing, flammability testing; a very long list. Home printed items go through none of this. It makes the prospect of successful 3D printing of consumer products a challenge. This hurdle has to be overcome and home printing simply does not allow for it.”

He added that his biggest challenge as a businessman came in seeking funding early on. Norman said that his initial foray into seeking capital in 2004-2006 led investors to flash him a “deer-in-the-headlights” look as he made his pitch.

Asked if he could have one innovation in 3D printing technology available tomorrow, the answer was unequivocal.

“A food safe, photopolymer with true thermoplastic properties. Everything today is photosensitive acrylics,” Norman said.

While the immediate future doesn’t include plans to aggressively chase his patents, Norman said he does “reserve the right” to adapt that view as time goes on.

“We’re growing at a stellar rate,” Norman said. “In 18 months, Kraftwurx grew to 125 production facilities, a total of 83 printing materials and a global footprint. I think over the next six months we’ll see accelerated growth and adoption. In the next two years, we hope to be at the forefront of showing how 3D printing can shift the balance by effecting an entire industry. I think that this sort of primer is needed to make people take notice of 3D printing in a major way.”