Formlabs Brings SLS 3D Printing to the Desktop, Mass SLA to Industry
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on June 05, 2017 | 5013 views

When MIT-spinout Formlabs first burst onto the scene in 2012, the startup’s Form 1 3D printer was an immediate hit. Though low-cost fused filament fabrication systems had begun to proliferate thanks to the RepRap movement, no one had yet made an affordable stereolithography (SLA) printer.

It was no surprise then that the Form 1 raised nearly $3 million on Kickstarter as the first desktop SLA machine. The company has since developed the second generation of its flagship machine, the Form 2, and released numerous materials and accessories, including the most recent Form Cure and Form Wash devices for post-processing SLA prints.

It’s been almost five years since the Form 1 was launched, and now Formlabs has returned to the market with two new products that could have a huge impact once again, not just in the desktop 3D printing market, but in industrial manufacturing as well.

The Fuse 1 is Formlab’s desktop SLS 3D printer. (Image courtesy of Formlabs.)
The Fuse 1 is Formlab’s desktop SLS 3D printer. (Image courtesy of Formlabs.)

At Formlabs’ Digital Factory event in Boston, Mass., the firm unveiled the Form Cell, a system for batch production using Form 2 SLA 3D printers, and the Fuse 1, its desktop selective laser sintering (SLS) machine. Dávid Lakatos, chief product officer of Formlabs, spoke with ENGINEERING.com to shed light on these new additive manufacturing tools.

The Form Cell 3D Printing Factory

Since the small consumer 3D printing bubble burst a couple of years ago and machine manufacturers have regained their focus on industry, we’ve seen an increasing trend to automate the 3D printing process. 3D Systems, for instance, has developed the Figure 4, which is designed to be paired with industrial robotic arms that can move quickly made prints from printer to post-processing and inspection stations.

According to Lakatos, industrial, automated 3D printing has been a goal of Formlabs since near the beginning. It wasn’t until the release of the Form 2 in 2015 that the company had a machine reliable and effective enough to be used in a production setting. Since then, the company has been hard at work to make it a reality. The result is the Form Cell.

The Form Cell is Formlab’s automated factory for SLA 3D printing. (Image courtesy of Formlabs.)
The Form Cell is Formlab’s automated factory for SLA 3D printing. (Image courtesy of Formlabs.)

The Form Cell consists of a row of Form 2 3D printers, a Form Wash, a curing unit and an industrial robotic gantry system that automatically moves parts from the printers to post-processing stations. The scalable solution, currently in development with key partners, will be customized depending on a client’s needs. Lakatos explained that some configurations would likely become popular and, therefore, a bit more standardized.

“The reason why we developed the Form Cell is that we have a lot of customers that already want to get into manufacturing,” Lakatos said. “Examples include the dental industry, where people are already using our machines for making end-use parts, individual surgical guides, individual splints and individual night guards. These applications require real volume. Even small dental labs can get to a couple of hundred surgical guides per day. If you want to get to that level, however, you are constrained by labor: Because of the costs and the amount of time it takes to set up machines, tend to them, upload them and move them from one station to the other, efficiencies just evaporate.”

The goal with the Form Cell is the creation of a lights-out, 24-hour digital factory that businesses can implement for batch manufacturing, from small to largescale. Lakatos pointed out that, at over 25,000 machines delivered to over 100,000 users, Formlabs’ has sold the most printers in the market. These users include some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies, including Google, GE, Lockheed Martin and Tesla.

As Formlabs continues to develop the software for the Form Cell, the printer farm would be able to integrate into an existing manufacturing environment with the Form Cell connecting to a company’s CRM, ERP and other technologies. At the same time, an automated printer farm like Form Cell would obviously increase the technology’s throughput, thus increasing the return on investment more quickly.

The Fuse 1 Desktop SLS 3D Printer

When joined together in the Fuel Cell, the Form 2 printers can deliver a less-expensive cost per part, but Lakatos pointed out that, when it comes to rapid production of high-quality parts and a low cost per part, nothing beats SLS. For that reason, the company has developed the Fuse 1, a low-cost desktop SLS machine.

The Fuse 1 starts at $9,999 and will be available for preorder June 5. (Image courtesy of Formlabs.)
The Fuse 1 starts at $9,999 and will be available for preorder June 5. (Image courtesy of Formlabs.) 

Formlabs aims to disrupt this market just as it has with the SLA space. Lakatos explained that, despite its capabilities for low cost-per-part production, SLS has still barely penetrated the market due to its high cost. Aside from a few exceptions, all industrial SLS machines cost more than $100,000 and many cost more than $250,000.

By bringing a powerful technology like SLS to the desktop, Formlabs aims to expand access greatly to industrial-grade 3D printing.The Fuse 1 printer starts at$9,999, while the complete package, which includes a post-processing station with material recovery, will cost $20,000. Reservations can be made starting June 5 with a deposit of $1,000. Formlabs hopes to begin shipping in mid-2018.

The Fuse 1 will be able to use Nylon PA 11 and 12 when shipping begins. Currently, the Fuse 1 has a recyclability rate of 50 percent for its powder, which is about the industry standard, but Lakatos believes that they can increase this even further.
The Fuse 1 will be able to use Nylon PA 11 and 12 when shipping begins. Currently, the Fuse 1 has a recyclability rate of 50 percent for its powder, which is about the industry standard, but Lakatos believes that they can increase this even further.

The Fuse 1 can currently use industry-standard Nylon PA 12 but will also be able to use PA 11. The system features a robust build volume of 165 x 165 x 320 mm and a 10W fiber laser. This compares to a 30W laser found on the smallest EOS machine, the FORMIGA P 110, which has a slightly larger build volume of 200 x 250 x 330 mm. However, the FORMIGA P 110 has a price of well over $100,000.

Formlabs’ new printer is the latest in a new trend of low-cost SLS machines but stands out as a product of a well-established company. Perhaps the closest competing desktop SLS printer is from Italy’s Sharebot, which sells the SnowWhite 3D printer, a bit pricier and smaller than the Fuse 1, but with a 14W CO2 laser.

The Future of Formlabs and 3D Printing

The common feature of the Form Cell and the Fuse 1 is the reduced cost per part. According to Lakatos, if the cost per part for 3D printing can be dropped, it’s adoption can be increased, resulting in a wider range of real-world applications.

By linking low-cost Form 2 machines into an automated setup, it’s possible for these customers to create a digital factory to augment other manufacturing equipment to enable such applications as mass customization for medical products. For instance, Invisalign combines custom 3D-printed molds, taken from 3D scans of patients’ teeth, with vacuum forming to create patient-tailored aligners. Similar applications could be expanded to a number of products, such as glasses, braces and shoes.

As 3D printing prices drop, custom goods, like this splint 3D printed with the Fuse 1, will become more prevalent. (Image courtesy of Formlabs.)
As 3D printing prices drop, custom goods, like this splint 3D printed with the Fuse 1, will become more prevalent. (Image courtesy of Formlabs.)

For the Fuse 1, it’s the ability to produce quality parts rapidly with a low-cost machine. “Today, believe it or not, there are only 2,500 to 3,000 SLS machines that have ever been sold in the world,” Lakatos said. There are many more service bureaus that use SLS machines, due to the ability to achieve an adequate return on investment, than industrial manufacturers. By dropping the cost of the machine, many more businesses will invest in SLS technology.

“We think that if the cost-per-part equation gets more and more favorable, we are going to see a rapid adoption and opening in the number of applications that are out there,” Lakatos said.“Right now, we think that mass customization will move beyond areas that have already been impacted, like prosthetics, and into more and more commodity items, like sunglasses or shoes, for example.”

At the Digital Factory, this point seemed to be driven home as Formlabs also announced a collaboration with shoe manufacturer and Boston neighbor New Balance. Formlabs and New Balance will work together to develop footwear-specific materials and printers to create manufacturing products aimed at enhancing athlete performance. Manufacturing will be driven by the Form 2. 

“New Balance is excited to work with fellow Boston-based Formlabs on our next evolution in 3D printing,” said New Balance President and CEO Rob DeMartini. “We have been a leader with 3D printing technology for many years, when we were the first to bring customized spike plates to our professional runners and have expanded into other sports since then. Now we look forward to taking this technology to consumers to further improve athlete performance.”

The new machines and materials will be leveraged for continuous production slated to begin at New Balance’s facilities in 2018. To learn more about the new products visit the Formlabs website or watch the Fuse 1 announcement.

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