Formlabs designs and manufactures powerful and accessible 3D printing systems for engineers, designers, artists, and manufacturers around the globe, accelerating innovation in a variety of industries, including education, dentistry, healthcare, jewellery, and research.
Hack & Craft caught up with Eduardo Torrealba, the engineer responsible for smashing the cost of 3D Printers.
Eduardo is a multiple award-winning engineer: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Millennium Scholar, National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and the Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize winner. Eduardo is also a published technical author in the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering. He is responsible for building Formlabs’ Selective Laser Sintering ecosystem of devices, software and materials.
Formlabs flagship product, the Form 2 3D printer, uses stereolithography (SLA) to create high-resolution physical objects from digital designs. The company was founded in 2012 by a team of engineers and designers from the MIT Media Lab and Center for Bits and Atoms. In June 2017, Formlabs announced they would be expanding their product portfolio towards selective laser sintering technology (SLS).
What inspired you to build the Fuse 1, Formlabs’ first laser sintering (SLS) 3D printer and can you explain how it works?
At Formlabs our goal is to increase the accessibility of 3D printing for every professional. With the Form 1 and Form 2 we took SLA printing from the workshop and put it on the desktop. Now we want to take SLS printing from a dedicated room with a dedicated technician and put it in every professional’s workshop.
SLS printing is a powder bed fusion process. In the Fuse 1 tiny spheres of nylon plastic are spread out evenly and heated to just below their melting point. Once they reach the appropriate temperature a laser scans the surface and fuses the particles together to create a layer of a part. The bed of powder is then lowered down and fresh powder is placed on top. The process is repeated over and over again until the machine has printed a full part.
One of the main challenges during the process was reducing the cost and the complexity from what exists commercially. SLS printers have not changed substantially since their introduction 30 years ago. Reliability is another fundamental aspect of 3D printing, and that’s the thing that we’re focused on right now. We want to make sure our users will get the same reliability from the Fuse 1 that they expect from the Form 2.
How does SLS compare to other 3D printing technologies on the market?
SLS technology enables designers and engineers to accelerate their prototyping process by directly manufacturing fully functional prototypes and final parts. The important advantage is that it allows printing with strong engineering materials. The Fuse 1 offers the same material properties and the same level of detail for the printed parts as traditional SLS printers. These strong, functional parts are a great complement to the highly detailed SLA parts that are produced by the Form 2.
The amazon-ification of consumers has dramatically reduced the time and distance between ordering something and its arrival, putting a strain on manufacturers who need to build to exact specifications, quickly and cheaply. So digital manufacturing is key. How does Formlabs make this possible?
Digital manufacturing is a major factor in many of our customers’ businesses. Consumers want everything on demand and customised. We put together a conference about the future of digital manufacturing last year in June called “The Digital Factory”. As consumers require more customisation and variety, manufacturers need to find more affordable and agile ways of producing products. Access to fabrication technologies that are reliable and easy to use such as the Form 2 3D printer is a way to make sure they can enjoy lower risk and lower costs in production.
We understand that Formlabs have partnered with 3Shape (the global leader in 3D scanning and CAD/CAM software for dental practices) to offer the first complete digital solution for dental professionals currently on the market. Please can you tell us more about this?
3D printing is one step of the workflow in the dental market. At Formlabs we’re creating the hardware, software and materials as a cohesive ecosystem. We understand the importance of giving our customers a fully integrated digital workflow. Our software integration with 3Shape was born out of the need of both sides for a unified flow, that goes from scanning to modelling to 3D printing to a surgical procedure with a biocompatible part. Over 50,000 surgeries have been performed with a Formlabs printed surgical guide — and that’s just 10 percent of what dental users are doing with our printers. A wide range of applications are now available thanks to our growing library of dental materials, such as orthodontic models, models with removable dies, splints and retainers.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced within the 3D printing market?
The 3D printing market has experienced a big shift over the last few years. After the initial excitement in the desktop market many companies struggled to stay alive after the hype for consumer 3D printing went down. From the beginning Formlabs focused on the prosumers: all those professionals across industries who work with 3D models and require rapid prototyping or customised parts. This is where 3D printing can make the biggest difference.
In recent years, as jewellery applications in desktop 3D printing have rapidly taken off, Formlabs has become the go-to professional 3D printing company for jewellery professionals who recognise Formlabs’ machines, range of resin materials, and products have become indispensable tools for jewellery innovation. Please can you tell us more about this?
The jewellery market is another market that is undergoing a digital transformation. The challenge of today is to have traditional craftsmanship methods meet digital fabrication and 3D printing. The industry is more traditional than engineering and design which makes it more resistant to the digital transformation we have seen in other places. This is why training programs and educational curricula like the ones at the Israeli Shenkar College of Engineering and Design are so important.
What recognition has Formlabs received?
Formlabs products have won several awards including “Best SLA Printer” 3D printing award with Make: Magazine. In 2017 the Form 2 won the prestigious Red Dot Award for Product Design. This award recognizes the Form 2 not only as a high tech production tool, but also as a beautiful design object.
The best recognition comes from the stories our customers tell us about the things they are doing with our products every day.
Users like the French digital artist Gilles-Alexandre Deschaud, who created an ambitious short film entirely from 3D printed parts on a Formlabs 3D printer, must be very inspiring?
Our customers are our biggest source of inspiration. We’re in continuous contact with them across every department – from marketing to customer support to R&D. Deschaud saw the Form 1 on Kickstarter back in 2012 and was inspired to create an entire 3D printed stop-motion movie with over 2,500 prints and 6 settings. Another story that we’re passionate about is the Shirley Technique, a story about a US-veteran who received a jaw prosthesis after cancer treatment thanks to work done on the Form 2.
Where do you see the future of 3D Printing heading?
The 3D printing market is moving fast, and every week we see new exciting developments. Labour cost on 3D printing is still the most expensive part of the running costs. This is why we’ve presented Form Cell, an automated printing production solution that automatizes the printing process.
Are you able to tell us anything about the current projects you are working on?
Right now we’re very focused on working alongside our early beta testers on the Fuse 1. At the same time, we’re constantly improving the usability and reliability of the Form 2 with improved software, quicker print settings, and more materials. Another challenge that we’re working on is growing the team! We’re now more than 400 employees between Boston and Berlin.