3D printing is a process by which a machine shapes plastic into an object by laying down plastic one layer at a time.The potential here is huge – any object you can design using computer software can come to life in the real world as a physical object. A number of 3D printing companies have sprung up with the goal of making this technology both affordable and accessible to whomever wants it.
Massachusetts-based Formlabs began a Kickstarter project seeking $100,000 to bring to market the Form-1, its new 3D printer design. It ended up clobbering that goal, finally raising $2.9 million.
We spoke with Formlabs cofounder Maxim Lobovsky to get his take on why the project ended up being such a home run.
“There was an unmet need,” he said. “Professional 3D printers at the high end run tens of thousands of dollars. The low-end equipment is more affordable but less than professional. There was a huge hole in between to satisfy with architects, jewellers, and other professionals in that middle ground who can make use of 3D printing.”
The current batch of affordable hobbyist 3D printers carry out their process by means of plastic extrusion–plastic is melted and laid out very precisely one layer at a time until a fully-formed 3D object takes shape. Formlabs decided to take an entirely different approach.
“We use a photochemical process called stereolithography,” they said. “We hit liquid resin with a wavelength of light. It polymerizes and hardens, but this has nothing to do with heat. It’s an extremely precise laser that traces out objects to within 5 microns of precision.”
Stereolithography is one of the oldest forms of 3D printing technology, but Formlabs seems to have improved on a classic. The Form-1 was engineered to have as few moving parts as possible and the team took efforts to keep the price low–for example, the blue laser that hardens the liquid is the same as the readily-available laser in consumer Blu-Ray players.
They told us, “3D printers work fine when they cost $100,000, so we wanted to bring that price down.”
The most obvious parallels are to the early days of the PC industry. Where mainframe computers of the 1970s are like the super-expensive 3D printers of today, the first Macintosh is like the Form-1, a device that fits on your desk but still carries out all the functionality of its larger, pricier counterpart.
“The first PCs didn’t go to homes. They went to businesses,” Formlabs told us. “We tend to see that as the parallel to what we’re doing here.” And this obviously doesn’t exclude other 3D printing companies. Brook Drumm of Printrbot and Bre Pettis of Makerbot each chipped in for a Form-1 of their own.
For the immediate future, Formlabs plans to deliver products to its Kickstarter backers and hopes to make them “very happy.”
The larger mission after that is to prove that there’s far more demand for 3D printing than has been realised, and if a Form-1 3D printer should end up on every single engineer’s desktop in the process, they can certainly consider that a mission accomplished.