Let's make something clear, if you search my previous articles you’ll find that I am something of a Formlabs fanboy. To me, its not that the product is shiny and marketing is sleek, it’s the triumph over adversity that I admire most. The fallout after an incredible crowdfunding campaign in 2012 was foreboding; there was a well-documented lawsuit with 3D Systems and issues aplenty with manufacturing that led to delays in shipment of the Form 1.
You don’t have to stray far from Formlabs to floundered find a ship that has buckled under the weight of a successful Kickstarter campaign - Pirate3D. It would appear that Pirate3D is sinking, leaving hundreds, potentially thousands, of backers machine less and out of pocket. Only 40% of machine orders have been fulfilled and co- founder, Brendan Goh, said that the company has ran out of funds because of shipment costs and spending too much money on R&D.
This is in stark contrast to Formlabs, who not only fulfilled all the orders but also have gone on to launch two new products in a similar timeframe. The latest of those is the Form 2 and I was privy to a sneak preview and demo of the machine with Formlabs’ Will Walker shortly before its UK
debut at TCT Show + Personalize 2015 in September. The new machine confounds assertions made about Pirate3D that a small company cannot compete in the 3D printing market.
“The three things we’ve achieved with the Form 2 are; improving the reliability, building the technology from the ground up, and giving the users more freedom to print larger parts with greater detail,” explained Walker. “You get everything that you’re paying for.”
Seeing is believing
The machine itself is what we’ve come to expect from Formlabs, a functional design that wouldn’t look out of place in any Bay Area hipster office. Other than a slightly increased footprint and a touchscreen display the first thing you notice is the resin cartridge system at the back. Resembling a jerrycan of sorts, the cartridge fits snugly in place and automatically fills the tray with required amounts of desired resin for your print.
Anyone who has used a Formlabs machine will see this as something of a godsend; not having to handle the resin, not having to pour in an amount and come back to top up during a bigger print will save hours of messing round. The machine also has a way for keeping that resin usable for longer.
“The biggest change is the new wiper system, it stirs the resin after every print, what that does is it helps the resin become one continuous liquid mixture whereas before, with the Form 1, you’d have resin building up around the edges of your print that would be partially cured, if you had a very large print you might start to see bits of it floating off and causing failures in your print,” Walker continued.
Form 2 3D printed parts.
￼￼“The tank itself is now heated, it warms up the resin to get the temperature up to a certain level so if you’re working in a colder area the resin will still function normally. Heating the tank also reduced the force happening in the machine.”
The team have also heeded criticism that other desktop 3D printer manufacturers faced when closing the device, the cartridge system is there for anyone who puts ease- of-use ahead of the ability to tinker but the machine is also open to pouring in your own third-party, resin in the way one would with the previous Formlabs machines.
When boring is good
The parts on display made by Will Walker’s demo unit are varied, you have huge, hefty Tough Resin examples that showcase the machine’s 42% bigger build volume and over 30 intricate ring designs in Castable Resin that printed on one build platform.
“I had an interesting talk with Max (Formlabs co-founder and CEO Maxim Lobovsky) when I was a year in at Formlabs,” Walker reminisced. “He said to me: ‘the bittersweet part of what we do is that we’re going to make these machines boring.’ They’re going to go from being this sexy, most exciting thing in the room to becoming the part of our lives everyday. That will happen when using the machine is as simple as making a cup of tea, that’s our vision.
“Using the machine will only become easier and as an artist it is freedom because you get your time back from diagnosing what is wrong with the machine and put that back into your designs.”
At TCT Show we caught up with Max, who said of the Form 2: “The Kickstarter was a bit of an experiment, it is amazing to get to go back and build the machine we wanted to build the first time around but didn’t have the resources or all of the user feedback.”
From prosumer to pro-user
Whereas other machine manufacturers have chased the consumer dream Formlabs quickly understood from the start that their users would be what the wider world calls the ‘prosumer’, the kind of people who buy Mac Pros or Canon DSLR cameras, the Adobe Creative Cloud users, the kind of people who are using high-end technology for professional reasons.
“We have mechanical engineers, industrial product designers, jewellers using our castable resins to make final pieces of jewellery,” Max continued. “We have people in the movie and gaming industry who print out characters that they’re working on... It really is a wide range of users.”
There’s a selection of superusers that Formlabs love, stories like the Sutrue device by Alex Berry that featured in a previous issue of TCT and in the main conference programme at TCT Show.
“I’m amazed at the number of people who are building companies around the machine,” enthused Will Walker. “Companies like Marble in Bristol (UK), they’re making high-end autonomous drones that are designed for surveying or map-making that are fixed wing, not propeller driven. If you’re crazy about aviation you’ll know that fixed wing is the best for fuel efficiency, so if you need to make an extended aerial survey you need fixed wing. They’ve been building with a Form 1+ and they’re doing things with aerospace that you can’t make in any other way, they’re using a style of structure called geodetics, which almost looks like overlapping crossed plates built into the wing but everything is hollow so everything is very low weight with very high stiffness. They use the 3D printer to build the crumple zones.”
As the Form 2 takes off and other rivals sink, it is easy to see why I’ve become such a Formlabs fanboy and the offer of Will Walker to come and see its Massachusetts-based facility, where there are “teams of people whose job it is just to check that boards are working” will almost certainly be taken up by yours truly and not just because of the enticing free bar nights the company puts on for its now 100-strong team.
Visit Formlabs at formnext powered by tct in Frankfurt on 17th-20th November. Register for your free ticket.