3D Systems Heads Toward Mass Customization with Figure 4
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on March 23, 2017 |
At AMUG, 3D Systems announced its Figure 4 3D printing technology for modular, rapid manufacturing.

It’s been a long time in the making—30 years, if you go back to the original patent documentation. At AMUG this year, 3D Systems finally unveiled its Figure 4 3D printing platform as a commercial product, rather than just a concept.

Figure 4 is a modular 3D printing system designed for mass production. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems.)
Figure 4 is a modular 3D printing system designed for mass production. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems.)

Meant for rapid manufacturing, as opposed to rapid prototyping, the modular system aims to improve upon 3D Systems’ classic stereolithography (SLA) technology with the ability to produce functional end parts. ENGINEERING.com was on the ground at AMUG, where we learned about some of the technology’s benefits, along with a number of other new products announced by 3D Systems.

Figure 4

When initially presented at the 2016 International Manufacturing Trade Show, Figure 4 was described as a modular system that uses what 3D Systems calls digital molding. Based off of the original SLA patent filed by 3D Systems founder Chuck Hull, the technology relies on a specialty membrane that enables the rapid curing of photopolymer resin. Unlike the company’s traditional systems, which use lasers to cure resin one point at a time, Figure 4 features a digital light projector to cast a digital mask onto the resin vat, hardening it one complete layer at a time. Combined, Figure 4 is over 50 times faster than current systems.

The Figure 4 at 2017’s AMUG event in Chicago. This is a four-print engine module. (Image courtesy of the author.)
The Figure 4 at 2017’s AMUG event in Chicago. This is a four-print engine module. (Image courtesy of the author.)

While at 3D Systems’ health-care facility in Colorado, ENGINEERING.com witnessed a skeletal model of a human hand printed in just under an hour with this technology. This speed already better suits Figure 4 for a manufacturing environment, and allows designers to more immediately transform a concept into a physical object for validation. However, there are additional features that promise production-ready printing even more.

Scott Turner, senior researcher at 3D Systems, confirmed with ENGINEERING.com at AMUG that, due to the layerless nature of the Figure 4 process, parts printed on the machine are isotropic. Unlike with most other 3D printing processes, which produce components that are weaker along the Z-axis, these parts exhibit equal strength in all directions. As a result, the strength and surface finish are more similar to injection molded parts.

Turner also explained that 3D Systems is developing new materials for Figure 4. In addition to the suite of dental resins brought to the company through its acquisition of NextDent, the lab is working on producing specialty reactive materials with engineering-grade qualities.

Additionally, Figure 4 was conceived with the factory environment in mind. Often displayed with industrial robotic arms, the modular technology can implement such robots in order to move prints from one station to another, from printing to heat treatment, then cleaning and then inspection. This last station is very exciting, in that it may make it possible to validate printed parts by 3D scanning them and matching the output against the initial CAD design, as illustrated in the below video. It should be noted that 3D scanning is limited by the fact that it isn’t able to capture interior geometries, but the possibility for automating the additive manufacturing (AM) process is an appealing one.

“In terms of the Figure 4 technology, the print engine is one module,” Turner said during a talk at AMUG. “It’s a modular system that’s configurable depending on the materials you need to process and the speed at which you need to manufacture those parts. In [one] iteration of it, we’ve got material recovery, we’ve got part washing, and then we have a secondary curing process. Certain materials that we’ve brought into Figure 4 will have other reactive processes that are required.”

Competition Heats Up

If Figure 4 sounds a bit like Carbon’s continuous liquid interface production (CLIP), that’s because it is similar. In fact, the research and development around Figure 4 began shortly after or at roughly the same time that CLIP was unveiled in May 2015. Carbon, too, seems to be aware of the similarities, in that its latest products seem to compete directly with Figure 4.

Carbon CEO Joseph DeSimone explained to ENGINEERING.com that the new M2 3D printer is compatible with industrial robotic arms. Carbon has also introduced a Smart Part Washer that quickly rinses parts upon printing with the help of finite element analysis. This, in combination with the modularity made possible by the new Carbon Connectors, suggests that Carbon is aiming at a similar configurable approach as 3D Systems.

Although distinct in their own ways, CLIP and Figure 4 share the following features:

  • A specialty membrane for ultrafast layerless printing and isotropic properties
  • Reactive resins for enhanced physical properties
  • A design made for a production environments
  • Post-processing stations
  • Modularity

Figure 4 in the Marketplace

Turner said that Figure 4 is configured based on a customer’s needs, making it possible to order a single Figure 4 print engine or a complete, automated AM factory, including 16 or more print engines, automated material delivery and integrated post-processing.

A chart outlining the differences between SLA and Figure 4’s digital molding. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems.)
A chart outlining the differences between SLA and Figure 4’s digital molding. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems.)

The first commercial system has already shipped to a Fortune 50 industrial customer, and 3D Systems plans to increase shipments throughout the second half of 2017. The initial target market is the dental industry due to the high use of the company’s technology for mass customization of dental crowns and molds for thermoforming invisible dental aligners. However, 3D Systems CEO Vyomesh Joshi has a larger plan for attacking a number of verticals, as indicated in his interview with ENGINEERING.com and the AMUG keynote embedded below. 

When announced, Figure 4 was an interesting concept, but now that Joshi has begun to deliver on the technology, we can see it as just one piece of a larger strategy to get 3D Systems back on its feet. To learn more about Figure 4, visit the product page.

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