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Patents Technology

CES: Formlabs Co-Founder Describes Their Stereolithographic 3D Printer (Video) 59

Posted by Roblimo
from the now-we-can-all-print-our-own-robot-servants-and-soldiers dept.
"It uses a totally different process called Stereolithography," says Max Lobovsky, while other low-cost 3D printers use a process called FDM (fused deposition modeling). Max explains the differences between the two processes in the video, but what it comes down to in the real world is that his process can "do features down to 0.3 mm," which, he says, is much finer than you can get with FDM. It also seems that structures made with Stereolithography can be made stronger and can be machined more accurately than those made by the FDM process. So this is another step toward fully-useful home fabrication of... almost anything. So Formlabs and the company's initial product, the Form 1, are interesting. And surely there will be other "consumer" Stereolithography machines in the market before long, and prices for both the machine and the chemicals they use as raw materials will come down. Meanwhile, a company called 3D Systems is suing Formlabs for patent infringement. This isn't a nickel and dime deal; Formlabs raised $2,945,885 through Kickstarter, says TechCrunch in a story about the suit. And since their 3D printer is an order of magnitude less expensive than earlier Stereolithography machines and the company's future looks bright, 3D Systems might be better off taking a stock settlement than going for cash. They've settled with other alleged infringers before, so there's a precedent for that idea. Suit or no suit, Formlabs is going forward, building and shipping 3D printers as fast as they can -- and President Obama mentioned 3D printing in his State of the Union speech last night, which will surely help boost the entire industry, including Formlabs.

Max: I am Max Lobovsky, I am co-founder of Formlabs. And Formlabs is a startup developing a desktop 3D printer.

Tim: Can you distinguish what you are making from, there is a whole slew right now of desktop 3D printing, how is Formlabs’ version different?

Max:: Sure. So we’ve got the Form 1 here, our first product, and it is a 3D printer unlike anything else available as far as desktop machines. It uses a totally different process called Stereolithography, which is different than any of the other desktop machines today. They all use a process called FDM (fused deposition modeling), and that works kind of like a hot glue drawing out the part layer by layer.

And every process has some advantages and disadvantages, but our process Stereolithography can get to much higher resolutions. Stereolithography works by having a bath of photopolymer liquid that is imaged by a laser, wherever the laser goes, it solidifies a thin layer of that resin, and then you repeat that process layer by layer. And so we are only limited by how finely we can point that laser, how small that spot is, so we can get really amazingly detailed parts that are clear and smooth with almost no visible layers.

Tim: Can you quantify how fine that is?

Max:: Sure. So we go down to 25 micron layers. Actually I like to talk about feature size, so we do features down to 0.3 mm so that’s like the smallest little structures you can make with it. There is a software package that controls the machine and takes in your CAD files and drives the machine, then there is the machine, then there are materials, and so all the materials are custom formulated to work with our machine.

We will have one available on shipping but we are developing a whole line of materials to work with the machine that give you different properties, you can go from rubber to hard plastic, you can have transparent or opaque materials, lost-wax, casting materials for jewelry, there’s a lot you can do, that’s another advantage of stereolithography.

Tim: Speaking of things that are shipping, when is this shipped?

Max:: So we will finish shipping preorders that we made on Kickstarter.com by the end of April. So we are just going to start shipping in the next couple of months.

Tim: So what about people who want one right now? What should they do?

Max:: We are taking preorders at Formlabs.com right now for $3,299.00 and those units right now will be shipping in May. What you can do with the Form 1 as compared to other desktop machines, is do a lot finer structure, so they are more overhangs, smoother surfaces. In general, better detailed part.

Our software takes in STL files which are standard file that almost every CAD software output, so it would typically work in some CAD program like SolidWorks or something like that, generate a STL file, and take it into our software to drive the machine. The only part of our goal was to bring this new technology stereolithography to desktops. The other part was to make a complete end-to-end works-out-of-the-box system, getting it as close to the experience you have with a 2D printer, where you just press print, and the machine jumps to life and you get exactly what you expect. That doesn’t exist anywhere in 3D printing today. And the big part of getting there is working on the software to automate more steps and just make it more foolproof, so a lot of technology we developed is in the software actually.

I have been working in 3D printing for about five years now actually. I started at Cornell University, I was working on Fab@Home project which was an early open source 3D printer. And that was the first place I saw that it is actually possible to make low cost desktop machines and it might actually work. And people were interested in commercializing it then, but I think nobody has really done it right, nobody has really put together a whole system that works out of the box that there isn’t any fiddling with, and that is what we have done.

Our product isn’t open source right now, but we think it has a lot of implications for open source development, and just general increased ease of innovation, because a lot of people have been comparing 3D printing to PC revolution, where today there are mainframes that use like tens of thousands of dollars 3D printers, they work great, big companies use them all the time, and they do good work, but just like mainframes they weren’t accessible to a wider audience. But as PCs came out there was a whole range of new applications that just came out of getting these tools into a wider audience. And so I think that is how Form 1 will really contribute to a new wave innovation in hardware development, product development by getting high quality 3D printing in order of magnitude to more people.

This is just an interesting geometry that has a spine structure, _____4:57 structure, what else have we got here? Here’s this rook piece that a lot of people claim that we’ve got a generally you can see the smooth surface, but you can also see that little double helix inside, that is really nice.

So initially we will ship with one resin, but one of the advantages of Stereolithography is that we can have an wide range of materials work on the same machine, and so different colors that is easy, where you can do even different properties of rubber. There is a lot exciting things happening at Formlabs. Right now though we are completely focused on making sure that Form 1 is a really great quality product, and there is a lot of development just adding on to the machine. And once you get the machine, we will be releasing new materials, and improvements to the software that will continue, kind of free upgrades for your product.

I think one thing we focus a lot on the technology and high resolution parts, but really what we put just as much effort into is the design of the product, just from how it looks in industrial design, aesthetics of it, but also to the usability and product design. That is why we needed to build our own software and develop our own materials because we needed everything to work together seamlessly.

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CES: Formlabs Co-Founder Describes Their Stereolithographic 3D Printer (Video)

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