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About a decade ago, Maxwell Bogue was nearing the end of 14 hours of work on his 3D printer when disaster struck. The 3D printer skipped a layer, destroying the part. “We had two perfectly finished pieces that weren’t attached,” Bogue recalled, shaking his head. “My business partner said, ‘I wish you could just take the nozzle off the 3D printer and weld the parts back together’.”
And so the original 3Doodler was born. Compared to a glue gun that squirts out melted plastic instead of glue, the idea is deceptively simple. A 3D pen is effectively a portable extrusion-based 3D printer that “draws” designs in the air – which stay there and are built on a desktop base.
A year of iterative design taught the team that would later become WobbleWorks, the company behind 3Doodler, that “the concept is simple, the execution is more complex, as with most things,” as co-founder and CTO Bogue noted. In addition to the pen barrel and extrusion nozzle, a 3D pen requires a precise motor, fine-tuned temperature control and extrusion speed, and easy material changing – all in a handy, easy-to-use package.
Once the technology was sorted out, WobbleWorks’ growing team tried to bring it to market. For co-founder and CEO Daniel Cowen, the focus before full launch was on patenting their work. “A lot of people produce something new and say, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ When we created this, we knew we had created a new category. We started with a provisional patent in the US.” To ensure they were strategic in their approach to protecting their hard-won intellectual property, “we filed patents in China, the US and Mexico, as well as Hong Kong, as this is an important “It’s a transshipment point.”
Cowen led the team to pay attention to the data behind Kickstarter, where they decided to launch it. “We looked at a lot of markets that supported us heavily on Kickstarter and went with that,” he said, explaining the IP strategy. “We covered America, Canada, Europe, Australia, South Korea and Japan. We were also attentive; Patents are expensive and take a long time to obtain.”
The launch itself seemed like it was practically the perfect example of a Kickstarter launch. A user-friendly and easy-to-understand 3D printing product that first hit the market in 2013, when consumer hype around these technologies was at its peak, generated significant support. The WobbleWorks team raised nearly $4 million in support through two crowdfunding efforts. Not bad for products that today retail for $30 for a small children’s version and $200 for a professional model.
And then came the harsher reality of being a premium product. The 3Doodler may have been the first 3D pen on the market, but it wasn’t the only one for long. The team was well aware of the importance of intellectual property protection – while they waited for their patents to be fully granted, they filed design and trademark registrations, which Cowen described as “pieces of paper that we could immediately wave around” – but still this didn’t happen It doesn’t take long for similar products to emerge.
“With any new technology, copycats will come out fast and furious,” Cowen said. “They didn’t care what we cared about when it came to compliance, safety, quality and education. These things are important to us because we’re trying to grow this market. We care about 3Doodlers because we are 3Doodlers, but we care about 3D pens because we are 3D pens. If these copycats capture enough market share and users have bad experiences, will that destroy the market? We are doing this to protect ourselves and the category, which is still in its infancy.”
Within the first two years of their release, copycat 3D pens had a major breakthrough in the market. They used images from 3Doodler for their own marketing. One memorable video showed just the tip of a “new” 3D pen in action and “it turned out to be our pen; hers wasn’t good enough,” Cowen said.
The finishing touch to a scribbled paper crane design.3Doodler
“We’ve improved along the way,” Bogue noted. “And we’ve seen these improvements being incorporated into the copycats over time as well. They even copied errors.” In a 3Doodler delivery error, some pens were left with a piece of Kapton tape inside the device by the supplier. “I always buy imitations, take them apart and look at them. They started coming out with duct tape,” Bogue said.
In 2018, five years after launch, “we had lost a lot of our market share,” Cowen recalls. “That’s a very hard pill to swallow.” Knockoffs copied branding, technology and intellectual property – and made such big sales that they got in the way of 3Doodlers. The difficulties then arose just as quickly as the initial success. The company “hit rock bottom,” struggling to increase sales, laying off employees and occasionally wondering why it was trying so hard in the first place.
For many startups, this could have been the beginning of the end. But 3Doodler fought back. In a pitched battle, the team ended up spending more than $2 million in legal fees to protect what they had created.
The 3Doodler team gained influence in 2018 as many of its patents were fully granted. “We finally had the opportunity to enforce it,” Cowen said. “One could argue that we designed the market the way it needed to be, including removing copycats from the platforms. We don’t have to own the entire market; No one has to monopolize a market, even if they created it. But there has to be a certain level of quality.”
Airplane “drawn” with a 3D printing pen.3Doodler
Counterfeit 3D pens were removed from online retailers through cease and desist letters. Court rulings confirmed WobbleWorks’ claims regarding specific examples of infringements involving new 3D pens. The team retained its own attorneys as well as outside legal experts to “make a thoughtful and considered decision as to whether these pens constituted a violation,” Cowen said. Since then they have been able to “enforce their rights quite vigorously”; According to Cowen’s recollection, their legal actions “removed over 5,000 entries, which really indicates the proliferation of copycats.” It was clear to him: “It’s not 5,000 pens; It may be five pens with color or name variations from different online marketplace sellers. We managed to dismantle these piece by piece.”
While the 3Doodler team declined to reveal specific details about litigation, public records provide a glimpse into some of their cases. US Patent No. 09731444 for a “hand-held three-dimensional drawing device” was filed in 2015 and issued in 2017. The protection of this patent served as the basis for WobbleWorks’ lawsuits against Ditec Solutions, LLC; DIM3Printing LLC; 3D Synergy Technologies, Inc.; and Yuri Gagarin, LLC. All of these lawsuits were filed in December 2017 and January 2018, with verdicts consistently favoring WobbleWorks; Ditec Solutions filed an appeal in July 2018, but it was rejected.
“As a company focused on innovation, you don’t want to waste your resources on legal fees,” Cowen said. “But would there be innovation without patents? No. Through patents we can play in the market, earn money and continue to innovate. We now have multiple lines. Innovation takes money.” Recalling a recent call about IP protection, Cowen added, “That investment is always the innovator. We have always put every dollar directly back into the company to continue to innovate.”
This legal investment appears to have paid off. With a strict licensing strategy, the team has now been able to more than double sales. To date, more than 2.5 million 3Doodler pens have been shipped to customers.
Quality control and market awareness are absolutely necessary, especially when introducing high-quality 3D pens. The latest 3Doodler offering, Pro+, is aimed specifically at professionals: architects, artists, designers, engineers. It can work with seven different materials, including plastics reinforced with wood and copper.
It can also act as a “useful repair tool,” Bogue emphasized: “It’s a portable plastic welder.” Using a wood-filled plastic thread, the Pro+ pen can fill cracks between floorboards, which can then be sanded down to match the look of the floor. Other materials are also suitable for other repairs: Welding PVC pipes on the go, repairing plastic parts in cars, and other small plastic repairs are surprisingly useful uses for a 3D pen.
On the entry-level side of the 3D pen market is the education sector. With 3D pen kits suitable for K-8, grades 8-12, and university levels, more than 8,000 classrooms worldwide are equipped with 3Doodlers. Curricula tailored to these markets have evolved, including “at-home kits developed in response to the coronavirus crisis,” Cowen noted.
Such offering development is now possible as the team can once again focus on research and development. Investing money in IP battles rather than ongoing innovation slowed next-generation product development for some time. A capital-intensive research and development project will soon lead to a market launch, now planned for mid-2021. This upcoming launch would have appeared a year ago “if we hadn’t been besieged by copycats,” Cowen noted. “Fortunately, we now have the money to invest in research and development. This is directly related to these platforms that finally allow us to defend our products.”
This article was updated on February 26, 2021 to add details of the litigation.
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I am rooted in industrial 3D printing and have been working as a journalist in this area since 2014. I own Additive Integrity LLC, an editorial services company dedicated to the additive manufacturing industry, writing and editing for industry publications and participants. I also speak at live and virtual events, discuss and debate industry trends and developments, and frequently travel to manufacturing facilities and conferences to gain in-depth industry insights on site. I am Editor-in-Chief of Fabbaloo, one of the oldest online news sources about 3D printing, and a board member of Women in 3D Printing, a non-profit organization that promotes, supports and inspires women using AM technologies. Prior to these ventures, I was Editor-in-Chief of 3DPrint.com (2015-2018), which was named one of the Most Influential Women in 3D Printing during my tenure. @SarahGoehrke is my Twitter home.
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