Anyone who has been involved in stereolithography (SLA) for the past decade or more has witnessed the technology’s rapid evolution. The broader category, vat photopolymerization (VP), has grown to include digital light processing (DLP), continuous DLP, and masked SLA (mSLA), all of which have had an impact on the speed, cost, and quality of VP systems. Meanwhile, photopolymer resin manufacturers have had to maintain their pace with these developments. So, if you’re in this segment, what do you do keep up?
If you’re Mark Peng, you decide to make both printers and materials. By tackling both sides of the market with two different companies, Peopoly and Siraya Tech, Peng has been able to navigate opportunities as they explode in different directions.
With Peopoly, he has built a trusted brand for SLA 3D printers that have progressed alongside these technological developments. At Siraya, he’s been able to develop unique, quality resins that fulfill Peopoly users and beyond. We spoke to Peng to gain insights on how this sector has changed and what he’s done to keep up.
From 3D Printers to Resins
Peopoly came on the scene in 2017 with the Moai laser SLA kit, launched on Kickstarter. At the time, Formlabs was the most prominent manufacturer looking to disrupt the previously high-priced world of SLA. It was only when firms like Peopoly began offering their own inexpensive alternatives that that market would be truly shaken.
However, because SLA had previously been the domain of 3D Systems alone, suppliers for 3D printing resins were scarce and the materials that did exist were too expensive or poor in quality. For that reason, Peopoly began making its own photopolymers from the start.
“The primary challenge was that laser printers emit a much higher UV light, and the use of PDMS-based vats necessitated a different approach to resin than film-based printing. These circumstances led us to develop our own resin from the outset,” Peng said. “We aimed to produce a high-quality UV resin at an affordable price for wide-scale adoption. This experience sparked the idea of creating a brand dedicated to affordable engineering resins. Hence, the core members of Peopoly’s materials team evolved into what is now known as Siraya Tech.”
Fortunately for Peng, the Moai raked in a quarter of a million dollars on Kickstarter, giving Peopoly the boost it needed to become a full-fledged company. The funds were obviously key to getting the firm off the ground, but it was the quality of the machine and user experience that allowed Peopoly to maintain its long-term growth. Feedback from the community was generally all positive, with customers impressed by the high resolution, ease-of-use, and more.
From Lasers to LEDs
Just as Peopoly was able to lead the charge in low-cost laser SLA, it became a forerunner in mSLA, in which an LED light engine is masked by an LCD screen. This technique has truly impacted the VP market by dropping the price of the technology while maintaining or improving resolution and increasing speed dramatically. Ahead of the curve, Peopoly introduced a low-cost, large format mSLA machine as an economical and faster alternative to both existing resin and FDM printers. With even lower-cost variants have entered the marketplace, Peng believes the development is beneficial to the industry overall.
“The advent of low-cost printers is beneficial for the industry, reducing entry barriers and allowing more people to engage with 3D printing. Evidence of this can be seen in the rise in material sales and a lower average user age. The enthusiasm fostered by this influx of users is not only beneficial to our creativity but also to our business,” Peng said.
For Peopoly, this means a stronger drive to compete in what he calls “a vibrant and challenging marketplace,” as the firm works to develop new systems with more advanced features. While the user base expands quickly, the supply chain is mature enough to lower printer costs. At the same time, the company has to face an ever-changing market.
“The challenge, however, lies in the accelerated pace of price reduction and spec upgrades, leading to shorter product life cycles and pricing difficulties. This is especially true for sub-$500 category printers, where intense price competition exists, and new printer generations seem to emerge every quarter,” Peng said. “To navigate this, hardware manufacturers need to evaluate their true value proposition for users. A lower hardware cost doesn’t necessarily mean a lower total cost for users, as service, application compatibility, and reliability are equally, if not more, important for various applications.”
While Peopoly handles these challenges on the hardware side, Siraya Tech has the advantage of being fueled by this increased competition. More low-cost printers mean more resin sales. And when poor material quality causes users to become frustrated, they turn to Siraya Tech as a more-established manufacturer, with direct-to-consumer sales and support.
At the same time, the rise of the low-cost VP market has driven greater demands from a more diverse user base, resulting in more varied and advanced materials. In turn, Siraya Tech has developed a broad range of resins with a number of different properties, including toughness, flexibility, high-temperature resistance, and castability. Because the industry is also shifting from prototyping to manufacturing, Siraya Tech is also putting more effort into obtaining better long-term performance and superior finishes, which means exploring more advanced oligomers and composites.
In the process, the company is expanding its resins to cater to applications with specific attributes, such as biocompatibility, flame retardance, antimicrobial properties, and ESD resistance. Siraya Tech’s Blu resin is already certified as bio-compatible under ISO 10993-10. The latest product in this line is Blu Nylon Mecha, which combines the material strength of Siraya Tech’s Blu Nylon with the surface finishes of its Mecha range, making it ideal for printing gears. Because Mecha has lower surface friction, gears made with the material require no additional lubrication, which isn’t possible with traditional ABS and Nylon materials.
Interestingly, the company has expanded beyond resins, manufacturing its own platinum silicone. It is specifically meant for molding with 3D printed parts, compared to other silicones that don’t cure quickly enough exposed to UV-printed parts. Silicone parts can be cured in water in just 30 minutes, eliminating the need for coatings or toxic chemicals.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that, even as successful businesses innovate within the market, their progress can still be thwarted by the macro environment. For Peng, this means moving more of his manufacturing to the U.S.
“The supply chain disruptions experienced between 2020-2022 led us to reassess our production strategies and the ways we can safeguard our key manufacturing operations. Even as material manufacturers, we faced stock shortages due to logistic complications from the disruption, and recovery took nearly a month,” Peng said. “This scenario was a key motivator to transition more of our production back to the U.S.”
While the pandemic may have helped accelerate a re-shoring trend that is occurring with companies globally, local production has revealed a number of other benefits that may aid in the future success of Siraya Tech and other companies.
“Moreover, we’re enthusiastic about supporting the growth and enhancement of advanced manufacturing capabilities domestically. We also aim to produce our engineering and medical resins locally for quicker turnarounds and more efficient quality control cycles,” Peng said. “This is an ongoing process we initiated in 2022, and we’re currently collaborating with U.S. raw material suppliers to develop formulations that can be both sourced and produced in the U.S.”
Siraya Tech will likely benefit from the government investment environment currently developing. Both in an effort to reinforce supply chains and to decarbonize them, the Biden administration has been pouring money into a number of endeavors to relocalize U.S. production with 3D printing and other smart manufacturing technologies. If Siraya Tech signs up with the Department of Defense, it could likely ingrain itself into the U.S. supply chain of tomorrow by 3D printing military parts today.
Images courtesy of Siraya Tech.
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