The way forward for 3D printing and manufacturing with Formlabs

When 3D printing went mainstream and gained popularity in the mid-2010s, it was hyped as it could be. Evangelists told us it would fundamentally change the way goods are made and usher in a bold new era of creative freedom. Soon, they said, we could be making Star Trek replicator-style whatever we wanted from the comfort of our homes as needed.

But of course, 3D printing hasn’t really fulfilled this lofty dream. Instead, it caused a brief stir and then largely returned to the sidelines to make its way in hobby workshops and state-of-the-art product design laboratories, but not changing the face of manufacturing in the way many had hoped.

Why? Well, despite some huge advances, additive manufacturing has been hampered by the lack of variety in material options. You can print anything you want – as long as it’s made of plastic. Because of this, the technology has been used primarily to make prototypes rather than durable end-use parts.

But that is starting to change. To get a better sense of where things are going, we met with Formlabs – arguably one of the most innovative and agile companies in the industry – at CES 2021 to get a glimpse into the future of product manufacturing.

From machines to materials

Last but not least, Formlabs will be showing a stylish new machine at CES 2021. It’s a material. Specifically, a new wax-based resin that enables ultra-fine, detailed prints that can be cast and used to make molds for jewelry making.

It’s certainly not the most eye-catching technology to hit the headlines at CES, but while that one material doesn’t seem particularly significant on its own, it’s a perfect example of where the 3D printing industry is headed. The focus is shifting more and more away from hardware innovations and improvements to machines and more towards expanding the range of materials with which these machines can produce material.

The level of detail on the surface of this ring is insane. Notice how my fingerprints look huge compared to the virtually invisible layer lines Drew Prindle

“WeI’ve always focused on materials, “says Kathy Bui, Verticallead Engineering at Formlabs,” but there has been a lot of emphasis on them lately, especially because the technology on the hardware side is slowly maturing. In the end, a 3D printer is a tool. A great tool, but really no materials, makes the tool less powerful. Our renewed focus on materials is therefore intended to unlock new uses and allow people to do more with the tool, as this tool is only as good as what comes out of it. “

To illustrate this point, Formlabs Digital Trends sent a sample box of items showing some of the company’s latest materials. A lot of these would have been unfathomable on a desktop printer just a few years ago – like a 3D printed spring that’s as strong and springy as metal, a heat-resistant dryer attachment that doesn’t melt at high temperatures, and a bottle opener that is almost as hard how steel is. There is even a new line of biocompatible resins in the range that can be used to print medical devices.

“It’s a big change,” says Bui. “I think it opens the door to a lot of developments in consumer products.”

Building beyond prototypes

Importantly, Formlabs is not alone in this pursuit. The shift in focus from hardware to materials engineering is happening across the additive manufacturing industry. Large companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems, as well as newer competitors like Carbon 3D, are stepping up their efforts in material development and increasingly using their extensive material libraries to differentiate themselves from the competition. The race for mastery of the materials is on.

It’s not easy to tell by just looking at them, but these objects are made from some of the most modern materials on earth. Each of them have completely different physical properties, although they start out as a puddle of viscous goop. Drew Prindle

But what exactly does that mean for the future? From Formlabs’ perspective, this means turning away from prototyping and finally ushering in the future we’ve dreamed of for the past decade.

“In terms of the next five or ten years,” says Bui, “I think the industry as a whole is likely to move towards end use and more production use – not so much towards prototyping.”

However, she is quick to note that the usefulness of 3D printing for prototyping is not going away anytime soon and that 3D printers will still be an invaluable resource for product designers. The difference is that with better materials they can make dramatically better prototypes – ones that actually have the properties and capabilities they are looking for.

“We’ll probably see much better design products for people because you can test and fail quickly, over and over again. So I think the product development cycle will get even shorter in the next few years and see even better products than it is now. “

While you’re probably not jumping up and down with excitement about the company’s latest resin, you should definitely be excited to see what this resin – and others who like it – will make possible in the near future.

Editor’s recommendations

Comments are closed.