As Industry Leaders Falter, Formlabs and Others Push New 3D Printers

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated with video, 5:50pm. See below] Where is the 3D-printing market heading? If you consider leaders like 3D Systems and Stratasys, the picture doesn’t look so good. 3D Systems’ stock (NYSE: DDD) has plummeted by 74 percent over the past year, while Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS) is down by a similar percentage. Their market caps are each around $1.4 billion.

Meanwhile, bigger tech giants like Hewlett-Packard, Amazon, and Boeing keep making noise about getting more seriously into 3D printing. More likely they’re covering their bases, with the idea that eventually, one of these years, the field will go mainstream.

But startups—that is where hope springs eternal, and progress is more tangible. Today one of the more prominent young players, Somerville, MA-based Formlabs, released a new version of its desktop 3D printer, called the Form 2. And we’re expecting a flurry of other news out of this weekend’s Maker Faire in New York City.

Formlabs designed Form 2 to be more reliable and higher-quality than earlier versions, making it more useful for professionals like industrial designers and manufacturers who need prototype designs and 3D models.

The 120-person company is one of a number of intriguing 3D printing startups around Boston. They include MarkForged, whose printed materials are designed for strength and durability; Voxel8, which is going after the printed electronics market; and Desktop Metal, which according to BetaBoston is trying to print high-performance metals, as its name suggests (though it could also be a great rock-music genre). Meanwhile, there are plenty of other efforts at startup workspaces, such as Bolt, to improve rapid prototyping processes.

These are extremely difficult technical problems. “It requires a very special coming together of different disciplines,” says David Lakatos, Formlabs’ head of product development (pictured above with Form 2). He’s talking about gathering expertise in photopolymers, optics, lasers, manufacturing, industrial design, mechanical and electrical engineering, and software development. “Boston is really the leader,” he adds. “I don’t think you could find these people with the same ease in San Francisco.”

(Lakatos would know; he sold a previous startup, called Sold, to Dropbox and spent a few months in the Bay Area before deciding it wasn’t for him.)

Formlabs’ printers use stereolithography, a traditional technique of using a laser to cure resin in layers. What’s not traditional is the company’s wiper and heater system to make the builds more reliable; resin containers to make the process less messy; a touchscreen interface on the device to make it easier to use; some recent advances in its resin materials; and software that runs the whole design process from a desktop computer. The first three features are all new with the Form 2 printer. (See video below, as Lakatos demonstrates the software and hardware interface.)

“What we are trying to do is give people a tool that they can rely on just like a 2D printer or laser cutter,” Lakatos says. “Where you can print it 30 seconds before a meeting, grab it, and don’t even need to check it.”

Formlabs was founded in 2011 by MIT Media Lab alums Max Lobovsky, David Cranor, and Natan Linder. The company ran a hugely successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign (netting $2.9 million) and has raised a little over $20 million in venture financing. Formlabs hit a speed bump early on when it was sued by 3D Systems for alleged patent infringement on stereolithography techniques; the companies settled in late 2014.

Formlabs has always gone after professional designers, engineers, and architects, not hobbyists. Lakatos would say he’s “skeptical” that the Form 2 is a machine that could be used by the masses to print out household items, say. But he’s proud that his company’s printers have been used by 11 other Kickstarter projects, for prototyping and manufacturing small batches of products; one example is a handheld medical suturing device that is mostly 3D-printed.

So, while some 3D-printing startups want to chip away at the big guys’ market share with cheaper professional-grade devices, they’re not looking to fuel the maker revolution just yet. That may come later—if desktop devices can drop below the price point of several thousands of dollars. (The Form 2 sells for $3,499.)

“If you give someone access to rapid prototyping and 3D printing, it changes the way they think,” Lakatos says. “We think it’s a step function, not just an incremental change.”