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How a Startup Built a Groundbreaking 3D Printer

Formlabs' inverted stereolithography process builds the part "upside down" using a shallow vat of resin.
Image courtesy of Formlabs.

An award-winning design that centers on usability is brought to life through smart engineering and tight collaboration with suppliers.

Mark Shortt
Editorial Director
Design-2-Part Magazine

It sports an orange, see-through cover, weighs 18 pounds and, at a boxy 12 x 11 x 18 inches, can fit on virtually any designer's or engineer's desk. There's not much upfront work to do before using it—just unpack, set it up, and start printing with the push of a button. But the Form 1+, a professional grade, high-resolution 3D Printer from Formlabs, is far from your average desktop machine.

"When we launched this product, there was no such thing as a professional 3D printer that cost anywhere near the price point that we were selling at," said Formlabs Lead Engineer Ian Ferguson in a recent phone interview. "So it's kind of like a step change in what's available to customers."

With a price tag of about $3300, the Form 1+ is a recently upgraded version of Formlabs' Form 1 3D Printer, which began shipping in May 2013 after a rousing Kickstarter campaign netted Formlabs $3 million from backers in 35 countries. The launch was followed last October by a $19 million round of Series A financing, led by DFJ Growth, to help further expand the company's R&D and customer support capabilities. Pitango Venture Capital, Innovation Endeavors, and returning angel investors also participated in the round. And after winning a Best of What's New 2013 Award in the Hardware category from Popular Science magazine, the Form 1 took home the 2014 Best of Innovations Design and Engineering Award in the 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing category at the 2014 International CES (consumer electronics show) in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Commenting on DFJ Growth's investment in Formlabs, press relations representative Shari Foldes said in an e-mail to D2P that DFJ Growth was impressed by the product and its market acceptance. "In addition to the Form 1 printer, which was a huge advancement for the industry, we were compelled by the response to Formlabs' Kickstarter campaign," said Foldes. "It was clear the company had achieved market validation, and we wanted to help fuel continued growth and innovation."

In an interview at CES, Formlabs Media Relations Director Sam Jacoby described the Form 1 as "a professional 3D printing machine that's packaged as a piece of consumer electronics." The CES Best of Innovations Design and Engineering Award, he said, recognizes what Formlabs' designers and engineers have been able to achieve by reassessing how a longstanding and high-performance technology—stereolithography—works.

"Stereolithography is a 3D printing technology that's been around for, at this point, nearly 30 years," said Jacoby. "With the Form 1, we've sort of taken it back to the drawing board and built up a machine that gives you the quality that you see in a $50,000 or $75,000 machine, and drawn it up in a package for a little over $3000. It really is a professional 3D printing machine that's packaged as a piece of consumer electronics. And doing all of that in a way that doesn't compromise on workflow—this isn't something that we packed together; this isn't something that's an effort to just drive cost down as low as possible—isn't easy."

How Formlabs accomplished all of that is a story—an object lesson—of user-centered design, savvy engineering, and tight collaboration with manufacturers in the supply chain.

The Form 1+

Unlike most traditional desktop 3D printers, which extrude melted plastic from a heated nozzle to build parts layer by layer via fused deposition modeling (FDM), the Form 1+ uses a laser-based method, stereolithography, to print parts with layers as thin as 25 microns (0.001 inch) and achieve what Formlabs calls "a professional print quality that plastic extrusion printers can't match." And although it's designed to emulate the print quality of larger, higher-end industrial printers, the Form 1+ isn't a typical high-end 3D printing workstation, either, because it's much more compact and costs way less.

The Form 1+ employs a 405nm Blu-ray laser diode to trace cross sectional patterns in photo-reactive liquid resin polymer that hardens on contact with laser light. A high-precision optical system is used to guide the laser, which can create features (details) down to 300 microns (0.012 inch) in size, in addition to solidifying layers as thin as 25 microns. Capable of extremely precise movements, the laser beam can move in steps of fewer than 10 microns, resulting in smooth surface finishes that FDM machines aren't able to achieve, according to Formlabs. Once the patterns are traced and the layers solidified, the build platform pulls the model up and out of the tank.

The printer comprises a folded sheet metal main frame that's manufactured domestically, Jacoby said, as well as laser-cut and anodized aluminum, also produced in the states. The resin tank is an acrylic material, with silicone cast in place.

A Tool that Facilitates Innovation

The Form 1+ is a new and different type of 3D printer that defies conventional attempts to categorize it. Ferguson said that it was clear to those who walked the show floor at CES that the Form 1 3D printer was "in a category of its own," partly because they were able to see what Formlabs' customers—from established leaders in their fields to innovators seeking to disrupt the industrial status quo—were actually making with the machine.

"We have great customers at top companies who are building interesting and creative things, producing really great work, and we're able to showcase some of what they've produced," he said. "I think that makes it really compelling because we can tell people that this is a great product, but it's even better if you can show that people are actually using it. That really speaks loudly."

Jacoby said that seeing what people make with the machine is a tremendously satisfying part of his job.

Chess pieces produced by the Form 1+ show the surface finish and detail that can be achieved by the high-resolution desktop printer from Formlabs.
Image courtesy of Formlabs.

"The coolest part, and this is where I get an enormous amount of satisfaction, is seeing the incredible things that people do with the machine," he said. "Having people come up to us and say, 'Hey, look at the thing that I made with the Form 1,' be it a customized medical stent, be it a spectacular game character or figurine, be it a really complex assembly that's used in scientific experiments—stuff like that is really neat to see. We really make a tool. It's an exciting tool and it captures the imagination, but at the end of the day, a tool is important not for itself, but for the things it allows you to make. And that's what we're all about."

Identifying an Unmet Need

Formlabs, a company founded in 2011 by three designers and engineers who met as students at the MIT Media Lab, is headquartered at an 11,000-square-foot facility in Somerville, Massachusetts. The company's founders—Maxim Lobovsky, David Cranor, and Natan Linder—were brought together around "a fantastic class" called "How to Make Almost Anything," Jacoby said. Their idea for the Form 1 grew out of their recognition of how difficult it was for individual designers, engineers, and innovators to get access to the use of professional grade 3D printers if they weren't working for a company large enough—and with pockets deep enough—to afford them.

"One of the great things at the Media Lab and at MIT is you have access to all kinds of fantastic industrial tools, and then once you leave that place, it's very difficult to have time on, say, a $100,000 machine anymore," he said. "And frankly, unless you go and work for a very large company, odds are fairly slim that your workplace will have a tool like that. And so a big part of the original impetus was to say, 'Hey, what kind of tools do we want to use in our work, and where can we get them?' And guess what? You couldn't."

Ferguson said that he, like the co-founders and others at Formlabs, had been able to use "really great machine tools, including high end 3D printers" during their years in school. But after graduating, he said that they, as well as designers and engineers at many small businesses, no longer had access to these high performance tools.

"We wanted to have a tool that would be a really functional engineering tool, but not be as expensive or as difficult to use as some of the more expensive products on the market," said Ferguson. "So we really had this clear idea of creating a tool for designers and engineers that would be both low cost and really professional in function, to fill that gap."

That gap, it turns out, was bigger than many people knew—or would have known, had they been aware of the rather large numbers of people worldwide who regularly use professional CAD software. Market research reports vary, but in its Worldwide CAD Market Report 2012, Jon Peddie Research (JPR) estimated the CAD market to be worth $7 billion at the end of 2011, with about 19 million users throughout the world. The engineers who would get Formlabs up and running knew how to do the math, even if their own estimate may have been somewhat conservative.

"There's something like 10 million users of professional CAD software tools worldwide, and there are something like tens of thousands of high performance 3D printers out there," said Jacoby. "We think that anyone using that class of software tool should have just as easy access to a 3D printer. So there's a big gap there, and we're looking to fill it. With our machine being so inexpensive and so simple to operate, we've empowered engineers and designers to get one right on their desk. From our view, it's an expense that is not so different from having a powerful computer to run powerful software. And that is really where we see [the Form 1+] being used most effectively."

Simplified Design Reduces Cost and Complexity

A word that comes up often when talking to people at Formlabs about their landmark product is "accessible." In the case of the Form 1+, that roughly translates to unprecedented affordability and ease of use—that is, for a 3D printer capable of "laser-sharp" detail in creating resin layers as thin as 25 microns and individual feature sizes as small as 300 microns.

"Usability is huge, so when you make a product less expensive, it's not enough to just make it cheaper," said Ferguson. "If you actually want more people to be able to use it because it's less expensive, you also have to make it easier to use."

The design and engineering team at Formlabs recognized early on that affordability and usability went hand-in-hand, and were essential to putting professional-grade print quality within reach of designers and engineers at small companies, as well as large. Their user-centered design philosophy focused on simplifying not only all aspects of the machine's operation, but the finishing of the part once it's been printed. As a result, the 3D printer comes with a post-processing Form Finish kit that includes a rinse basket, flush cutters, and microfiber cloth to make it easy for users to put the finishing touches on their creations. It's an example of what Formlabs Co-founder David Cranor meant when he exhorted attendees at O'Reilly Media's 2014 Solid Conference in San Francisco in May to "focus on what's really important."

"Think about who you are as the user, and make sure that it works," Cranor explained in his presentation, "Bootstrapping Design Culture." "We knew that resin handling might be a concern for people who want to have this machine in their office, so we studied every single aspect of using the product, not just how it is to use the machine, but also what happens when you want to start a print, and then what does it take until you actually have the print in your hand? And so we did lots of experimentation and realized that this finishing accessories kit was actually something that we probably were going to need to spend a lot of time on."

Like other industrial machines, 3D printers have traditionally been designed for work solely within an industrial pipeline. Ranging in cost from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, they often require a dedicated, full-time person to operate and maintain them, which has allowed 3D printer manufacturers to neglect the usability factor, Jacoby said, and has led to the market opportunity that Formlabs is attempting to exploit.

"You can say, 'OK, I'm going to have a full-time member of my team who's going to be responsible for taking care of our $100,000 printer because that's the kind of investment it is,'" Jacoby said. "And that allows manufacturers to get pretty lazy because they can say, 'Great, we're going to have someone on your side who's going to be trained, who's going to know all the maintenance, who's going to know all the various little quirks and bells and whistles."

Parts with complex geometries and extremely thin walls are produced by the Form 1+.
Image courtesy of Formlabs.

But when a high-end machine is typically entrusted to a trained specialist who can figure out its quirks, the manufacturer of the machine has less incentive to make it more accessible—more user-friendly—to a wider range of users. If the software is difficult to use, if the interfaces aren't intuitive, no problem—the specialist knows how to handle it. Formlabs is trying to change all that by making a professional grade machine that's capable of high-end precision and quality, yet is affordable and easy to use.

"3D printing is not that complicated, it's not that hard," Jacoby said. "It's not that difficult to bring in as part of your workflow, and you can do it in a really cost-effective way."

The Form 1+ is designed in such a way that it requires, essentially, no calibration out of the box, unlike many other precision instruments that necessitate lengthy and often complex calibration procedures. All the user needs to do is set it up on their desk and go. With thousands of the printers already shipped and in customers' hands, the Formlabs team likes what it's been hearing from the field. "We hear routinely, 'I opened up the box, I unpacked it, and I was printing in 10 minutes,'" said Jacoby.

But actually making a 3D printer that can be easily set up on the user's desk without any calibration, that offers high-resolution print quality with layers as thin as 25 microns, and that sells at a price previously reserved for lower-resolution FDM machines is another story. It just isn't that easy, Jacoby said, and that's why the Form 1 was awarded the Best of Innovations Design and Engineering Award at CES earlier this year.

"Though we've designed it to be a simple machine, it's a precision tool, so the tolerances we're working with on all surfaces are really high, and at our price point, difficult to meet," he said. "So we've done a lot of work in finding low-cost solutions for, let's say, casting very smooth silicone, for use in our resin tank and other challenges like that."

Formlabs kicked off its project by assembling a tightly integrated team of designers, material scientists, and engineers (software, mechanical, and electrical), who set their sights on making 3D printing technology work within a user-centered industrial design context.

"We're engineers and we're designers, a multi-disciplinary team," said Jacoby. "And looking at the machines out there, they don't really speak to us aesthetically and didn't inspire us towards the broader vision of bringing products to life in the world. So in designing the Form 1, we put an enormous amount of attention on the overall synthesis of how the forms work together, and sort of telling the story of product design and prototyping in our own product. And that's been a really important part of our mission early on. Yoav Reches, the lead industrial designer, is very passionate about those questions. And that's been something that we've built into our process right at the ground level."

The team focused on simplifying as many aspects of the machine's design, construction, and eventual operation as possible. One of the real keys to making the technology work well, Jacoby said, was figuring out easy ways to manage the construction of an SL machine that doesn't necessitate an entirely separate, complex, and error-prone liquid handling system. Many of the more expensive printers on the market have complex ways of handling the resin that significantly increase the size and cost of the machine, he said. But Formlabs' design of the resin tray, along with the upside-down, reverse operation of the Form 1, allowed them to leapfrog many of the obstacles that those machines face while achieving huge cost savings.

A Process that Builds Parts Upside Down

In stereolithography, widely seen as providing the highest accuracy and resolution in 3D printing, software is used to slice a CAD model of a part into thin digital layers. A computer controlled, ultraviolet laser is then directed to a tank of photo-reactive liquid resin polymer, where it traces these layers in the liquid. Because the liquid resin is sensitive to UV light, it hardens into solid material when exposed to the laser. The build platform then lowers into the tank, allowing the laser to trace the next layer, and the process repeats until the entire part is built, layer upon layer. In the traditional SL process, the part and the build surface are lowered down into the liquid resin so that only the next layer is right below the surface of the material.

Formlabs' inverted stereolithography process builds the part "upside down" using a shallow vat of resin. The build surface faces the bottom of the transparent resin tank, and a very precise, thin layer of resin is achieved by squeezing out resin "just to the right level" between the bottom of the build surface, or the previous layer, and the bottom of the tank. For Formlabs, inverted stereolithography simplifies the printing process and eliminates two big cost elements: the need to have a large column of resin already included in the machine, and the need for a special re-coater system.

"The whole system helps us save cost and complexity," said Ferguson. "The price points that some of our competitors charge for resin and the volume of resin you need to fill that column—you can be talking about many thousands of dollars of resin just to get started printing. And we don't need a special re-coater system. In order to actually have a very thin layer of resin on top of your build surface, you end up with all sorts of meniscus-like effects, and there's a lot of technology that goes into making sure that top layer of resin is as smooth as possible. Otherwise, it shows up in printed parts."

Driving Costs Down Even Further

Aside from simplifying the design by deciding which features were important to the user, Ferguson said that a number of other factors were key to achieving such a low price point without sacrificing quality or performance. One was the ability to capitalize on significant drops in the cost of components for the printer's core pieces, the laser and galvanometer systems. The Form 1's laser system is based on Blu-ray technology, and the investments that Sony and other companies have made to lower the cost of Blu-ray lasers have enabled Formlabs to "leverage the low-cost, high quality lasers that they've been able to develop" and are now on the market, he said.

The system for sensor feedback and control, located in the galvanometer system, has also dramatically decreased in cost. Ferguson credited a combination of computing power, which helps compensate for problems, and the fact that the system's electrical components now provide better performance at a lower cost, with simplifying the feedback and control system. He also said that the Formlabs team used a 3D printer while producing the Form 1, and was thus able to reach its end goal faster and less expensively than others have in the past.

The Form 1+ 3D printer comes with a post-processing Form Finish kit that includes a rinse basket, flush cutters, and microfiber cloth to make it easy for users to put the finishing touches on their creations.
Image courtesy of Formlabs.

Strong Relationships with Domestic Suppliers

Sam Jacoby offered another reason why Formlabs has been able to keep the price of the Form 1+ low while incorporating high performance—carefully choosing suppliers with whom they can develop strong working relationships. Many of their suppliers were in close proximity to Formlabs' headquarters in the Boston metro area.

"We've put a lot of effort into sourcing," said Jacoby in a recent phone interview. "We put a lot of research into how we can design effectively and deliver a high quality machine at a price point that is really affordable for a variety of businesses and individuals. That's something that we know is an important part of a groundbreaking product—that people can have access to it and can use it in their work—so it's something we take very seriously. A number of critical components are domestically manufactured, and that's something that we've done more of over time—use domestic suppliers for various critical parts of the machine. And the final assembly takes place in the United States as well."

The real advantage to domestic manufacturing is evident when making a new product that "no one really knew how to make," Jacoby said. "It's one thing if you're making a bike light. There's a lot of expertise in manufacturing to tell you how and why bike lights are made the way they're made." But working on a novel 3D printing product is like breaking new ground every step of the way, which means it's really important to have great partners in that process. "We've found that with some of the most challenging elements of our design, it's been really useful to have manufacturers close at hand who you can work tightly with."

Time was of the essence for Formlabs when making the transition from design for prototyping to design for manufacturing. According to Ferguson, Formlabs' engineers were able to satisfy their need for speed by using processes that required little or no tooling—sheet metal fabrication, laser cutting, thermoforming, and machining—and by working with local suppliers.

"Local people are great because they're nearby, and you can go see them and talk to them," Ferguson said in a presentation at this year's Solid Conference, "A Case Study in Using Software to Bring a Low Cost, High-Tech Product to Market." "That's good for convincing them to go faster, and also, they're great for giving you advice. We used a lot of sheet metal, and sheet metal is a great way to develop your product because it requires almost no tooling. You can give a drawing to a sheet metal fab shop and if you can convince them, they can basically laser cut the metal and be bending in no time at all."

A supplier's ability to communicate is high on the list of what Formlabs looks for when evaluating potential sources. "What we really look for, above all else, is really great communication, and knowing exactly what is going on, when and how," said Jacoby. "And in an industry like ours, which moves so quickly, our specifications change really quickly. We—our designers—are learning as we're doing, and being able to respond to those changes very effectively and transparently is really important to us."

Ferguson said that Formlabs' suppliers were key in providing feedback, meeting specifications, and coming up with more cost-effective ways of manufacturing certain parts. Some elements of the machine, such as the laser, required them to work "very closely hand-in-hand" with them. And because the majority of the machine is built on a sheet metal frame, Formlabs worked closely with its sheet metal suppliers, who were local and happy to provide sound feedback.

The ability to visit and meet face-to-face with local or domestic suppliers is especially valuable, Ferguson said, to tighten the loop between design and manufacturing. Although most manufacturing processes have basic design guidelines and lists of tolerances that can be expected, more is required when a product departs from the beaten path. For example, in cases where Formlabs needed to have higher tolerance parts than what its supplier would normally produce through its sheet metal process, they were able to talk with the supplier and figure out how to increase the quality that they could obtain in those areas. As an added benefit, they were able to shorten their lead times.

"We talked to suppliers and then actually visited their facilities and looked at what they were doing to understand the process better," said Ferguson. "As soon as you want to do something that's a little bit out of the norm, you really need to get there and talk to the people who are actually operating the machines, and understand the process first hand and what they can actually do.

"We also had interesting and varied success working with overseas suppliers, but I think that domestic suppliers that are local are really a more sure-fire bet. You can actually go and verify the various steps along the way, how things are going, and we did that." Ferguson added that in U.S. shops, quality is implied. "No factory in the United States is going to ship a really junky product, ever. They just won't. They don't stand by that stuff, and so you can basically trust them to do that."

Ferguson puts responsiveness and "how informed they are" at the top of the list of qualities that Formlabs looks for in suppliers.

"If we're sending out drawings that we know are a little rough and we're not hearing any pushback or feedback, it's a sign that they're not really looking closely," he said. "But we also look for people who we can really scale and grow with. It's great to match with suppliers who see us as a valuable customer and someone that we know we're valuable for, so that we have a good working relationship."

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