A cut above desktop systems, the pro market was always aimed at the sophisticated designer or consumer and small businesses. Increasingly, these systems are used for production in casual, series and volume manufacturing. Through prototypes, they are continually used by businesses, as well. They are used to make molds, lost wax casts for jewelry, dental parts, and hearing aids.
Good at lots of tiny small smooth parts, these systems are finding their niche as a real productivity and manufacturing tool. At the same time, many are used by designers working from home or consumers that wish to explore more detailed, smoother prints. Custom jewelry shops and designers making small series of goods also use these systems a great deal.
Slicker in design and software than material extrusion (FFF/FDM) systems, they do appeal to a different market, but plenty of businesses run both FDM and SLA. Support removal is a chore and resin prices are elevated when compared to other 3D printing materials, but these systems are not toys. They play a part of people’s businesses and are judged as such. Whereas, OEMs often claim that these systems can print end-use parts, this is often not done.
On the whole, materials have improved significantly and we can get much higher HdTs and CSTs, but for real-life parts, FDM provides tougher, if uglier, components at much lower prices. Castable and dental resins have, however, really propelled this part of the market from a fun prototyping machine to an essential daily-use business tool.
The market for pro systems was created by and is dominated by Formlabs. In terms of their overall user experience excellence, they lead the pack as well. An early focus on software and experience means that these systems work well and deliver on value. Other vendors may soon feel some pressure from competition from below. Meanwhile, Asiga and DWS work in their respective areas and niches. Formlabs and DWS have brought real materials innovation in this segment by releasing more functional resins.
There is an increasing move toward direct sales while other firms are starting to build global reseller networks. In this segment, dental offices, dental labs, jewelers and other small business users are the main customers. Systems are real business productivity tools and often used every day. Laboratory use of these systems is increasing in bioprinting applications, microfluidics, medical devices, and as a tool generally in university and research applications.
Some companies are using dozens of systems to make many tens of thousands of parts for particular niches. Often, these niches are little understood outside of the limited markets that they operate in. In other cases rather obvious for the technology, applications are being explored, such as positives for mouth guards, thermoforming inserts, dental parts, etc. Although clusterization shows great promise, production volumes are more likely achieved by a room full of standard machines.
Reliability is very important here, as is usability. Typically a system will be used for small parts and to make them often. Software is better here and companies offer curing stations. Linear rail and ball screws are often good quality here, as are other components. Systems can work for years, but the little maintenance that there is has to be done well.
Curing parts, sanding them down and removing supports is tedious and time consuming. Often the additional labor costs are not appreciated by companies using these systems for the first time. These will have to be reduced or businesses will migrate production once they grow to services who may use larger machines. Support collection and recycling systems will have to be set up at one point by someone who will be the environmental leader in an environmentally tricky market. Clusterization or how one could expand clusters of standard systems together with automation to make millions of parts cost-effectively is a possibility here. My own testing shows that you can get the accuracy of much larger systems with desktop systems. Real efforts must be made to enable clusterization in the market, however.
Safety is an issue here, as well, as stated in the desktop article. Long-term exposure to liquid resin and long-term repeated exposure to droplets hitting skin can lead to contact allergies. Liability may ensue if some resins are used in final parts or on the employee side if not enough safeguards are introduced and maintained. Some resins may be carcinogenic. Recycling is also a huge potential issue here. Maximum buildable part sizes are often very small here, as well. This is not communicated to customers and may lead to disappointment on their side.
Recommendation for Competition
Formlabs looms large here and I would not recommend you ape them. It will be tough to beat them at their own game. An explicitly open copy of Formlabs may have success if marketed well. More fruitful will be in making printers that target specific verticals and markets. There are many markets that are criminally underexplored here and making a specific material and printer combination that, along with software, will benefit a particular vertical will be the more fruitful approach. In this segment, a kind of DIY Invisalign for orthodontists would be a much much more profitable and interesting startup to me than any OEM right now. With so many firms struggling with software, a relatively inexpensive but high-quality software package for this segment would be preferable than to being an OEM also.
With many dental and orthodontists’ offices closed for much of last year, one would expect a certain degree of catchup in some markets. Industrial users and small-to-medium businesses will still be smarting in many cases. Generally, competitive pressures will rise as more companies join this segment and Formlabs continues to grow. This segment almost belongs to Formlabs and many expectations are that the company will continue to dominate it.
True, it is a formidable and well-capitalized competitor. Moreover, it spends its money well. I do think that competing with them is possible with well-positioned, perfect software/materials/printer combinations. On the whole at this point, however, application-specific, well-executed propositions, (in house Invisalign for your local orthodontist or custom headphones) will be a better path to an excellent business.
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