We’ve been reading about the 3D printing revolution for years, how one day soon we’re all going to have a magic box in the corner of the room that will be able to print up anything from a new phone case to a firearm, a toy car to a new washing machine, all from plans downloaded off the internet and a few pots of special goop plugged in at the back.
The problem is that the reality has largely lagged a long way behind the hype, as Michael Sorkin, head of EMEA for US disruptive 3D printing tech outfit Formlabs, explains. ‘Parts printed by the glue gun [hobbyist] machines are cheap – maybe half a dollar’ he says. ‘But the quality is rough.
‘Industrial quality machines produce a great finish, but they cost at least $300,000. At that price they are not accessible to SME’s, which are the majority of businesses in the UK and in Germany.’ (Sorkin is based in Berlin - the two largest 3D markets in Europe are Germany and the UK).
Which he adds is where Formlabs comes in. Founded in Boston in 2011, the company’s aim is to provide the low cost and ease of use of a desktop hobby printer (which typically use a combination of starch powder and hot melt adhesive to print objects layer by layer, hence the ‘glue gun’ monicker) with the high performance and quality of a large industrial machine.
And some of the firm's most eager early customershave been dentists, he says. 'Dentists are the heaviest users of our printers. Some have six machines wth two people operating them full time'.
Why so much interest? It's all down to speed and cost. A mouthguard, for example, 3D printed from a dental impression of the patient’s mouth can be ready in 2 hours and costs 4 euros. ‘That compares with taking 2 weeks and costing 150 euros to send it out to a dental technician to be hand milled’.
They are working on technology that will allow everything from a crown to a full set of false teeth to be custom manufactured equally quickly and cheaply, he adds.
Customers also use the machines for printing individually-fitted hearing aid earpieces and prosthetics. A partnership has also been announced with trainer manufacturer (and Boston neighbour) New Balance for printing the soles of training shoes, although details of this are still sketchy.
Their existing high quality, low cost 3D printer - the Form 2 – uses a technique called stereolithography to form high quality plastic components by using a laser beam to selectively harden the surface of a liquid resin. It costs around £4,000.
'The finish is much better than a glue gun, because the head doesn’t move so there is no vibration’ says Sorkin. ‘No-one buys a 3D printer because it looks nice, they buy one because it reduces their costs or increases the speed of the design and production process.’
By making the technology cheaper and more affordable (originally using for example, cheap off the shelf lasers from Blu Ray players rather than expensive customer made ones in their printers) Formlabs is opening the door to many customers and markets for whom 3D has not been an option before.
‘The technology has existed for 25 years starting with the big guys in aerospace and automotive, yet when we started the installed base of those big machines was only 1,200 worldwide.
‘We came in with kickstarter and we sold over 1,000 machines in a few days. We found real new markets.’
Now Formlabs has a brand new and even more sophisticated machine on the market, called the Fuse 1, which it claims is the first desktop SLS 3D prnter in the world. SLS (selective laser sintering) is the most accurate and highest-quality technique which until now has been the preserve only of very expensive industrial machines costing as much as 2m euros apiece.
‘SLS is the holy grail’ says Sorkin. ‘It’s powder based, high quality and produces functional parts. They are fully finished and assembled with no support structures that need to be removed’.
This latter is important because it makes the technique more suitable for production runs of tens of thousands rather than one-offs or very small batches.
‘The trend is moving from rapid prototyping to rapid manufacturing, you can bring back manufacturing that was offshore and save money on labour, the biggest cost.
‘Dyson is one of our customers. They already have the big industrial machines but with our printers every designer can have a machine on their desk.’
The Fuse 1 starts at $9,999. Add on a service, installation and training package aimed at the less-experienced SME customer and that price rises to $19,999. The machines are modular so that several can be built up into a fully automated mini production line, called Form Cell.
The company has also produced a range of 12 printable polymers, from the biocompatible material favoured by dentists (safe to be in your mouth for 50 years with no ill effects) to a high temperature plastic that can withstand over 280 degrees centigrade and is suitable for making the tools for injection moulding machines.
Such tools made out of metal cost thousands of pounds to make, and often need to be updated before they have worn out. Whereas 3D printed in high tempeature plastic they are cheap and quick to make and facilitate frequent updates, so if they only last for 2,000 units it doesn’t matter much.
‘Nowadays the keywords are all customisation, amazonification, industry 4.0. Hardware companies have to innovate as fast as software companies and that creates a lot of tension with outsourced manufacturing where it takes months to make a final design.
So in the UK we have hundred of customers who were outsourcing their manufacturing to China, now they are bringing it back.’
So maybe that 3D printing revolution we’ve all been hearing about for so long is really about to happen at last.