There are a lot of players trying to move strategically around the 3D printing board. And when you mess with the big dogs, it can be as scary as… well, not a John Grisham novel or anything, but it can still be a big deal. The startup Formlabs managed to get some unwanted attention from the powerhouse 3D Systems in the form of a lawsuit over patents that has been dragging on… and on. In a recent interview with Xconomy, Formlabs founder Max Lobovsky didn’t have a lot to say about the suit, but Xconomy examined court documents that indicate the two parties may be close to reaching an agreement.

formlabs-logo-grey@2xWhat’s truly impressive is that Formlabs hasn’t collapsed under the pressure that such suits often cause to newcomers to a technology scene. Instead, they have continued to receive funding from investors, including an injection of some $19 million last summer. With the 3D printing market receiving more and more attention from all sectors, it should come as no surprise that a lot of new blood is being introduced to the scene. While 3D systems and Stratasys have been supplying high-end industrial use machines for 30 years or so, Formlabs targets the individual or small firm designer market. The fourth major player, MakerBot, reaches out to the consumer market for desktop printing and was recently purchased by Stratasys for $400 million.

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So, while there are a growing number of people becoming involved in the production of the printers themselves for this boom market, it is not for the faint of heart or the light of pocket. In fact, when Formlabs was first named in the lawsuit, Lobovsky recalls that:

“People told us, ‘This is it. You’ll never be able to raise money, people will never buy your product. This is like a death sentence.’ And honestly, that is probably what 3D Systems was thinking, but it’s not that simple. Obviously, we believe we weren’t infringing. And the patents expire in a very short timeframe, and we were able to keep operating and raise another round of funding, and kind of power through it.”

Not something that many could do while writing multi-million dollar checks. I have to admit that Lobovsky’s argument reminds me a bit of the time I chastised my daughter for hitting my son. She responded, “I didn’t hit him. And I was done anyway.”

logoIn any case, 3D Systems isn’t facing any grave danger to their bottom line with the presence of players like Formlabs and their reaction could be seen as using a hammer to swat a fly. Except that this particular fly actually appears to have been able to take the hit.

The story of Formlabs makes an interesting foil to those of 3D Systems and MakerBot. Lobovsky appears to have a more levelheaded view than many of the potential for 3D printing to revolutionize the world. Rather than hitching its wagon to the hopes that there will be sweeping changes in consumer behavior, Formlabs’ niche is providing 3D printing capabilities directly to small players who were already involved in 3D design but might have previously had to shop out their work. Building on the culture of 3D printing as a part of the iterative design workflow means that more designers want to have a printer in house, but it doesn’t mean that they are more willing to spend $16,000-$19,000 to get one. Formlabs printers run at about $3,300, something that is still unpalatable to the hobbyist but that looks like a steal to a professional designer.

stratasys_logoIt’s the same story as the digital camera with three strata of clients to consider when developing a product: the consumer, the professional, and a third class called the ‘prosumer.’ The consumer can happily use a Canon Rebel and produce great results, though nothing like what comes from using a professional’s Hasselblad. However, a lot of photographers find that the Canon 5D or 6D gives them the ability to enter the photography market without the $45,000 price tag. In the case of 3D printing, the prosumer — or small design firm or individual designer — needs to have access to high quality production but isn’t able to or desirous of the massive investment required for industrial scale printers.

As Sophia Vargas, a Forrester analyst, noted:

“When you look at the market, there really is no strong dominant player. It really is anyone’s game, and folks haven’t really committed that much to any one type.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 6.27.50 PMFormlabs is still growing. They have opened a new office in Berlin that will focus on sales and marketing for the European market. They now employ about 90 people in an expanded office just outside of Boston. And, particularly exciting, they’ve just rolled out of two new liquid print material types. The first is a resin that is castable for things such as jewelry molds. The second in a resin that is flexible and can be used to make rubbery objects instead of the traditional hard products associated with 3D printed production.

Without giving away too much about exactly how many machines they are moving, Lobovsky boasted that the company is currently:

“[S]elling many thousands. We’re not quite profitable at the moment, but we have very significant revenue. We actually were profitable when we raised the last round of funding, so it’s a real business. It’s not a venture-funded game.”

As they say: You’ve come a long way, baby.

Let’s hear your thoughts on Formlabs’ growth, the patent lawsuit, and more in the Formslabs forum thread on 3DPB.com

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