3D printing was supposed to reinvent the world — giving common people the simple tools they needed to create any object they needed, right when they needed it, provided it was made out of certain metals or plastic.
Lots of startups, most notably MakerBot, popped up to push a vision of affordable 3D printing for consumers. That particular dream has all but dried up, with most companies in the space stumbling — it turns out that 3D printing is still too expensive and too tricky for your average consumer.
“That’s what the first wave of 3D printing got wrong,” says David Lakatos, Chief Product Officer and cofounder of Formlabs.
Formlabs, a Boston-based company founded in 2011 by a bunch of MIT grads and an early Kickstarter success story, is one of the companies on the vanguard of a new wave of 3D printing — focusing not on consumers, but rather on helping businesses rethink how they do manufacturing. For instance, Formlabs recently signed a deal with New Balance to help them produce 3D-printed sneakers.
Now, Formlabs has brought on Carl Bass, the outspoken former CEO of Autodesk, as a member of its board of directors. The company is pushing to reinvent manufacturing, and manufacturing jobs, for the modern age — a hot topic under the Trump administration.
Printing the future
Lakatos likens Formlabs’ mission to the runaway success of the Amazon Web Services cloud computing service: Amazon Web Services gave developers affordable access to fundamentally unlimited supercomputing power to build their next-generation software. Formlabs wants to do the exact same for people building physical goods.
“We want to power a whole new range of projects and types of products that could never exist,” says Lakatos.
Formlabs sells two models of 3D printer. The first, oddly called the Form 2, is a $US3,499 desktop 3D printer meant for the so-called “prosumer.” The Fuse 1, a recent entry to the line, is a $US9,999 model meant for the “industrial benchtop.”
That’s a little pricey for the average user, but it’s price-competitive for startups, businesses, Fortune 500 companies, and anybody else that needs to manufacture things. Formlabs’ competitive edge is that its printers are very accurate, compared to other printers in their price range.
“Formlabs has become a major player in the production of machines that produce relatively small, precision parts in photopolymer,” says Terry Wohlers, President of 3D printing-focused analyst firm Wohlers Associates.
That, in turn, gives companies of all sizes the tools and tech they need to stay competitive, manufacturing wise. It’s a good thing for anybody making bike helmets, shoes, electronic gadgetry, or anything else that might need accurate 3D printing. With a cheaper printer, it suddenly becomes realistic to keep production local.
For instance, Lakatos highlights the dental industry.
Dental labs often outsource the manufacture of prosthetic teeth and dental bridges to factories in China, who can do it cheaper — resulting in the loss of those jobs here in the United States. With a Formlabs printer, says Lakatos, a dentist can take a patients’ measurements and have it printed here overnight. It’s better service for the patient and a lower cost of operation for the dentist.
“This can keep US dental labs competitive,” says Lakatos. And it could be a model for manufacturing moving forward, giving companies a way to keep their production lines open in the United States.