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

"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 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 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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  • or sues them. or does both.

    point is - there's no reason to expect that they would sell anything based on their patented tech for cheap. couple of the techniques are so simple(like this one) that litigation is what is keeping the competition at bay(also some aspects of fdm printing).

    (also kickstarter had another similar machine already earlier though with much less fanfare.. afaik they managed to ship and not get sued)

    • by Megane ( 129182 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2013 @04:05PM (#42887185) Homepage

      As I understand it (this all hit the fan a few weeks ago, not sure why /. thinks it's worth an article right now), the patent expires later this year. Formlabs took money now (or rather a few months ago) for a product that would be delivered after the patent expired. So 3D Systems is suing them for getting the money now, before the patent expires.

      In other words, Formlabs is being sued for patent infringement about a product that they haven't actually released yet.

      • by joss ( 1346 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2013 @06:12PM (#42888743) Homepage

        Thing is, 3D Systems (specifically the companies founder, Chuck Hull), invented stereolithography and they have tons of patents in this area (I'm named as inventor on 22 of them.. I used to work for 3D Systems). So, if Formlabs can get out of this one as it's close to expiration date, there's more pain in the pipeline.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          there's more pain in the pipeline

          I wonder... Quadrophonic Lithography? Surely not Surround Lithography!

  • The article mentions resolution down to .3mm... I'm sure he is incorrect here... the Form1 must be able to go much higher. Standard FDM printers like the Makerbot Replicator can easily do .1mm or even less. RepRaps get down below .02mm regularly.

    • by Guspaz ( 556486 )

      0.3mm is the dot size (minimum feature size). The equivalent measurement on the Makerbot Replicator 2 is 0.4mm. Both the Form 1 and he Replicator 2 can position the feature more precisely than that, but those measurements are how small the feature can be once positioned. Another relevant measure is the minimum layer thickness; 25 microns for the Form 1, 100 microns for the Replicator 2.

      • If by feature size, one is referring to the nozzle width, than 0.4mm is just the default nozzle supplied by makerbot...I've heard that one can install smaller nozzles if needed...however, it usually doesn't make enough of a difference to be worth the longer print times.

        As far as layer height goes, the most common printing resolution for a makerbot replicator 1 is 0.15-0.2mm and I've heard of a few users getting down to 0.05mm - however it usually isn't worthwhile, and 0.1mm is the lowest frequently used - a

  • by Anonymous Coward

    While you can get AMAZING resolution with stereolithography and stronger parts than FDM, there are some caveats.

    Namely, due to the chemistry of the photopolymerization process, stereolithography parts degrade over time, even faster if left in direct sunlight. This is why you never see stereolithographed parts used in critical applications.

    But this is probably good enough for consumers.

    Oh and due to patents, you'd be better off making your own 3d printer than buying this one at this stage. This printer is us

    • Namely, due to the chemistry of the photopolymerization process, stereolithography parts degrade over time, even faster if left in direct sunlight. This is why you never see stereolithographed parts used in critical applications.

      The process is good for making moulds of various sorts very quickly. Those don't have to last a long time. In fact, I believe that this was the original intent.

      • by Rob Riggs ( 6418 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2013 @04:57PM (#42887787) Homepage Journal
        It's been over 20 years since I worked in a rapid prototyping shop. That's exactly what we did with most of the models. We made a latex mold and cast parts using various resins, typically polyurethane. The chemicals used in stereolithography, including the cleaning agents, were pretty nasty. I would not want that in my house. The urethane resin had to be degassed and the molds cured under pressure to prevent bubbling as the exothermic reaction took place. The commercial vacuum pumps, degassing chamber, compressors and pressure tanks were pretty expensive. Though that cost was nothing compared to the 3D Systems stereolithography machines. Those were upwards of USD500,000 and about USD80,000/yr in maintenance costs.
        • Why not directly create the mold w/ a CNC mill like a Shapeoko?


          Opensource, inexpensive buy-in (a bit more than $300 to start), lots of documented upgrades (working on a driveshaft, double Makerslide X-axis and 1 meter Y-axis for mine).

          All you need is a dust collector to keep things clean.

  • by SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2013 @03:56PM (#42887079)

    The tradeoffs with stereolithography: it requires toxic, expensive, smelly resins and can't do very enclosed spaces because the uncured resin would be trapped. The parts have to be washed - again, smelly/toxic chemicals are involved. The resins also usually have a limited lifespan, with some of them practically melting over time.

    By the way: "machining" is not the proper term for anything in the class of Additive Manufacturing, which is what both FDM and stereolithography are.

    • by iammaxus ( 683241 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2013 @06:11PM (#42888727)
      There are trade-offs with every 3D printing process and stereolithography is no exception. But, some of the points you mentioned are not true about modern stereolithography or the Form 1. In our case, the resin has almost zero smell (you've got to put your nose right up to it to smell anything) and is similar in toxicity to handling many household chemicals (think glues and paints). Our pricing on the material is on the order of half of what high end 3D printer companies charge ($150/liter vs $300/liter). -Max co-founder, Formlabs
    • by afidel ( 530433 )

      Their process uses isopropyl alcohol and water and the setting/cleaning agents, hardly what I'd classify as nasty chemicals. My bigger problem is the $3,300 price for the printer and the $150/pint (looks like) resin cost and the UV sensitivity of the generated parts (though if they're temperature resistant they'd have some significant advantages versus other homebrew 3D printer systems).

      • UV sensitivity is just not a big deal. Just paint. I like Krylon fusion for plastics, and you can use it as primer for a normal topcoat.

  • They seem to have managed to scale industrial-quality 3D printing down to a hobbyist level. What I find amazing in stereolithography is that it's precise enough to print fully assembled machinery that works out of the printer [].

  • According to the linked wiki article, the low end is $80/L for the material. That's not as bad as ink; but it's still a bit pricey.

    • Is it recyclable? If you can just melt it down and use it again, then that alleviates a lot of the cost.

      • The problem is it isn't just going to be as easy to melt it down and reuse it. Material going into it has to be "processed" a certain way, its not like your printer is going to have a vat of "stuff" that you can just put old stuff back into.

        Also, as with any plastic "stuff", recycled "stuff" isn't as good as the original "stuff", so chances are anything you print will not be readily turned back into raw materials, but will have to propagate down into lesser and lesser quality materials until it ultimately

      • Not so much melting down the part.

        Can the fluid be used for more then one model?

        The machine makes the model by exposing the parts it wants solidified and while slowly filling the tank. When it's done you've typically solidified a small % of the volume. Do you have to throw away the fluid or can you just top up the tank to the tune of the volume of the shape you printed?

        How many uses? Light sensitivity? Dim room best? Dust issues? Skin oil?

        What am I going to have to do? RTFA?

    • If you are in need of parts that look better than stacked slices of cheese, then I'm sure the prices are acceptable.

  • by TheSkepticalOptimist ( 898384 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2013 @04:56PM (#42887775)

    You do know that even when a decent 3D printer capable of producing anything of any quality comes out, the cost of the material to put into it will be prohibitive to a point where it is cheaper to go to Walmart and have it printed there...

    • That could be true, if for no other reason than the fact that the material will be proprietary. My lab uses an Objet Connex 500 (with a voxel size of .04mmx.04x.02), but 3.5 kg of basically any material runs over $1000. This is in no small part because we must buy cartridges directly from the distributor (think of somebody with one of those "free" Dell printers with $50 ink, except there's no other competition).
  • So they say their process can reach 0.3 mm, and that's much finer than FDM ones can.

    Reprap printers use FDM. Mine printed to a layer height of 0.1 mm right after calibration, with a 2-1 width-height ratio... when I get my broken Arduino replaced (it's been a month dammit), I'm going to check if I can get it down to 0.05 mm or so. Any lower is just insanely slow, but.. saying that 0.3 mm is special compared to FDM is just plain nonsense.

    - Electronically/mechanically inexperienced, first-time Reprap builder

  • by MobyDisk ( 75490 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2013 @05:20PM (#42888051) Homepage

    "It uses a totally different process called Stereolithography,"

    I know all these terms like FDM and stereolithography are new here at Slashdot, but this tech isn't new at all. At my employer, the industrial designers engineers tell me how they replaced their stereolithography machines with FDM machines years ago.

    "do features down to 0.3 mm," which, he says, is much finer than you can get with FDM

    The Makerbot Replicator I have at home does 0.1mm out of the box. This is typical.

    "Stereolithography can be made stronger and can be machined more accurately than those made by the FDM process."

    Perhaps the technology has improved. But the whole reason companies replaced the stereolithographic machines with FDM is because of the benefits of using "real plastic." It was stronger and didn't photo-degrade like the resins do.

    I am not knocking the Form1: it's a great device. But I caution anyone to treat it like some new big up-and-coming thing.

  • TFA says it can make objects up to 125mm X 125mm X165mm (4.9 X 4.9 X 6.5 inches), not very big.

    Is Acrylate Photopolymer suitable for a lost wax style casting process?

  • And even that wouldn't really be news anymore.

  • From the summary: "So this is another step toward fully-useful home fabrication of... almost anything."

    Well, a very small step. The Form 1 machine cannot make the polymer it consumes, or the metal enclosure for it's base. For those you need a flexible chemical plant to supply various polymers, and a hydraulic press to roll-form the sheet metal.

    The Seed Factory Project ( [] ), which will be starting soon, is aimed at a more complete

  • The patent is from 1997. Does anybod know how long such a patent is valid?
  • what is the only point of reference for a technology that starts off crazy expensive and then gets cheap enough for consumers? Ink jet printing. Has the cost of ink cartridges dropped to almost free even as millions and millions of the things get manufactured and used? Nope.

    Why would 3D printing chemistry (photo resins for STL) get cheap?

    If you want 3D on the cheap, you need a plastic extruder and use ABS or PLA.

    • what is the only point of reference for a technology that starts off crazy expensive and then gets cheap enough for consumers?

      "Only point"? No. You're using one right now! Computers. Also, Cars, boats, CDs, desktop publishing, radio broadcasting (ignoring that it's illegal), cell phones... I'm pretty sure the list is quite large.

"This is lemma 1.1. We start a new chapter so the numbers all go back to one." -- Prof. Seager, C&O 351