Formlabs, well known for being the first company to introduce affordable desktop SLA 3D printing, has been working toward a sea change in additive manufacturing with a strong focus on the user experience and true democratization. The company was founded in 2011 and a year later introduced the Form 1 3D printer, which was followed in 2014 with the Form 1+ and the Form 2 in 2015; this year’s announcements have so far included new equipment for post-processing, as well as a move into another 3D printing technology, introducing a (relatively) low-cost SLS 3D printer with the Fuse 1 and the Fuse Cell automated production system. While not without some controversy over the years, Formlabs has built up a dedicated user base and even picked up a popular design repository among its offerings.
The Boston-based company recently welcomed me inside its doors, where I had the opportunity to visit the three-storey HQ and talk with Marcelo Coelho, the company’s Head of Design and a lecturer at MIT. For his part, Coelho was a classmate of the founders of Formlabs, so his joining the company this past January did not place him in unfamiliar territory. He is not the only somewhat-recent addition to the team, either; when Coelho came in about eight months ago, there were around 200 employees. As of my visit, he estimated that the company employs around 300.
“One thing that’s very interesting at Formlabs,” Coelho pointed out as we walked, “almost everyone has a 3D printer at their desk, almost like a 2D printer in other offices. We’ve very much drank our own Kool-Aid here.”
He was quite right, and the familiar translucent orange-topped machines were certainly plentiful in every area of the building. In addition to the scattered 3D printers on effectively every flat surface, a large-scale print farm is used to create the sample parts shipped to inquisitive minds curious about different materials and was busy creating more Black, White, Grey, Clear, Castable, Dental, Tough, Flexible, High Temp, and Durable prints to send out.
Near the kitchen area were some interesting looks inside their hardware — literally. Exploded views of components showcased the insides of the 3D printer, resin containers, post-processing tools, tank, and platform.
“There’s always more to improve; we’ve done quite a lot to improve already and make everything simpler,” Coelho noted as we examined the displayed components.
The company has its roots at MIT, and keeps many of the foundational lessons from the institute to heart. A well-known course there ensures that students understand how to build every part of a project; it was in this How to Make (Almost) Anything course and its follow-up where Coelho met the classmates who would go on to form Formlabs, which had its beginnings in a Cambridge basement. Though operations in Somerville are now much larger, the early lessons have stuck and today’s Formlabs maintains a hands-on approach to every aspect of production.
“We pride ourselves on creating the whole machine; a lot of work goes in to make it high precision and affordable,” Coelho told me. As we discussed some of the newer technologies, including the automated Form Cell system, he went on: “This all is part of why people like it. We design it for ourselves, and others have the same needs. For the Form Wash, we’re looking to really maximize properties from each resin, so its settings are optimized for each material.”
The philosophy of design is fairly straightforward: “We design everything from scratch and test the hell out of it.”
With so much development taking place in-house, Coelho explained that in some ways Formlabs is really three companies in one, with focuses on the 3D printers, the materials, and the software.
“The combination of all three working together is really powerful,” he said.
That combination is powering up Formlabs’ growth phase, as, in fact, materials development just moved to another building.
“There are infinite material properties you can create, and the more you create the more you can do,” Coelho said. “Our team are really good. They basically do magic.”
As we walked through the industrial design area, Coelho noted that this team “are the guys who make it look sexy.” While I have my issues with that phrasing, there’s no denying that 3D printers from Formlabs are sleek-looking machines that look right at home on an office desk (or, indeed, in a hospital lab, industrial 3D printing room, or makerspace; nearly every technology-agnostic space I’ve toured recently has included a Form 2). The industrial design team at Formlabs keep busy taking the full user experience into consideration, frequently prototyping and redesigning to enhance every aspect.
Moving into the newer technologies and the announced foray into SLS 3D printing, I had the opportunity to handle some sample parts made on the Fuse 1, including a bicycle pedal identical to one that one of the company founders had put into extended real-world use.
“We’re optimizing, improving, and making it better,” Coelho said of the upcoming Fuse 1 technology. “We’re really excited. The parts are good. This pedal was made and used for a year, and it stands up to Boston weather.”
Of the machine itself, he continued, “It has a camera looking in the machine, which both looks cool because you can see it, and allows you to observe progress during the print. We try to do as much as possible here [in the shop]. This culture of DIY comes a lot from the MIT mindset, working through every detail.”
Following the facility walk-through, Coelho and I sat down to talk business and Boston. He noted that the city is “really special in many ways,” benefiting from world-class institutes including MIT, Harvard, Tufts, Boston College, and more. Many graduates of these schools stay in the area, creating a well-educated talent pool of creative and technical minds.
“Maybe think Silicon Valley, but the vibe is different. I don’t want to say more realistic, but that’s the word that comes to mind, very down to Earth. As they say, ‘hardware is hard’ so you have to be realistic about it,” he said.
Growth at Formlabs has certainly drawn from this talent pool. Coelho described this period of time in 3D printing in general and at Formlabs in particular as “crazy, wonderful, empowering, tiring — it’s exciting.” He came into the business in order to be part of that excitement and the potential it has.
The hype surrounding desktop 3D printing has calmed down from its media peaks of 2012-2015, and no one expects there to be a 3D printer in every home anymore. But the possibility of that old prediction coming true is still out there as technology advances and becomes more affordable and more accessible.
“That desktop hype, there was real excitement for possibilities; some were very well fulfilled, some were not. We know a 3D printer in every home is not true yet and maybe will never be,” Coelho said evenly.
“But the possibilities of that to be true are there, and that in itself is a crazy revolution.”
The actual revolution afforded by increased access to 3D printing technologies is for altering the way in which product designers design their products, and the potential for true customization.
“What’s really interesting is prototyping and production — it really is. We see our customers thinking about their businesses in a totally different way. They can use the same tool to make one of something and scale that to one thousand. That tool didn’t really exist before,” Coelho stated.
“This technology is really making a dent in changing the way of thinking, and with that come many possibilities and opportunities. We’re really excited about customization; we have to start thinking differently how we’re making things. It had been: go to the shoemaker, here’s my foot, make a shoe. Then it went to mass production. Now it is going somewhere between these, and still allowing to customize. Our Chief Product Officer likes to say, there are eight billion people, there’s no reason not to have eight billion designs and adapt to the particulars of each person.”
Thinking differently, designing differently, offers untold potential in the production process. That desktop 3D printing is playing a part in this is undeniable. Formlabs takes its responsibility in this rethinking process seriously, and is itself demonstrably dedicated to thinking through every process and product introduction.[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]