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Formlabs’ New 3D Printing System Enables Custom Xconomy Awards: Video

Xconomy Boston — 

When it comes to trophies, plaques and gold cups are so 20th century.

For Xconomy’s first-ever awards gala, we decided to make custom prizes for the winning Boston-area life sciences companies and individuals, using advanced design software and 3D printers. (See video below. There are blue lasers involved—you’re welcome.)

Xconomy partnered with Formlabs, a 3D printing company located in Somerville, MA, which manufactured the trophies for us for free. Our awards are the first products Formlabs has made for an outside group using its new Form Cell 3D printing system, says chief product officer Dávid Lakatos.

Form Cell aims to automate much of the printing process using a combination of robotics, software, and a line of the company’s Form 2 printers.

“The interesting part about these is how much actual human labor [goes] into getting to this part,” Lakatos says, referring to one of the Xconomy trophies sitting nearby. “It’s really close to zero.”

Formlabs and its competitors are trying to make their 3D printers as efficient and cost-effective as they can. Automation can be one piece of that equation. Other 3D printing companies, such as New York-based Voodoo Manufacturing and Boston-based New Valence Robotics (NVBots), have also developed printers that use robotics to handle at least some of the manual labor.

The bigger goal is to shift the use of 3D printers from primarily making prototypes and small batches of parts, to higher-volume production of a variety of things. Formlabs says its Form Cell system helps enable “mass customization”—basically, churning out large quantities of bespoke objects. The company says the initial target markets include consumer electronics, dental products, and audiology products, such as hearing aids, advanced ear plugs, and in-ear monitors for performers.

“The use cases we see today are things that are high value and things that are very customized,” Lakatos says. “I think the world is moving toward everybody wants everything cheaper, shipped the next day, tailor-made for them.” Form Cell could help advance that vision, he adds. (It’s still early days though—the product was announced in June.)

Here’s how Form Cell works: A software file containing the part’s design instructions gets uploaded to the Form Cell’s computer system. When a part is ready to be printed, a robotic arm grabs a square-shaped base for the part being built, slides over to an idle Form 2 printer, and inserts the base.

The printer then creates the desired part on the base using a stereolithography process, which involves using a laser to cure resin layer-by-layer. To make the builds more reliable, the Form 2 has a heating system that maintains the resin at a consistent temperature, and a wiper that removes any excess particulate materials as the part gets printed. The machine is also equipped with resin containers to make the process less messy.

After the part is printed, the robotic arm retrieves it and places it in a post-processing machine for cleaning and additional curing. Then, the robot grabs the part and places it on a tray for a human worker to perform any remaining processing work. Depending on the part’s design, that might mean removing support structures and sanding the part to make it smooth. (That’s the case with Xconomy’s awards.)

Form Cell can print several different parts simultaneously—the system I saw is composed of a row of five Form 2 printers (as shown in the video). Print jobs can be queued up to start automatically as soon as a part is finished printing and the robot removes it.

Each Xconomy trophy took about 16 hours to print, says Tse Wei Lim, Formlabs’ creative director. (Click here to view a photo slideshow.) Most parts take roughly a couple of hours to print, Lakatos says. Xconomy’s awards took longer because of their height—5.5 inches—and the fact that they’re not hollow, but made of solid clear resin, Lim says.

The original plan was to print trophies that were identical except for the winners’ names on them. But given the customization capabilities of Form Cell, Formlabs suggested varying the designs for each award category.

The trophies were designed by Rebecca Zacks, Xconomy’s co-founder and chief operating officer, and her husband, Zach Kron, a senior product manager in Autodesk’s generative design group. Autodesk’s Dynamo Studio software was used to create the design instructions for Formlabs’ printers.

Kron says he and Zacks went through about a dozen variations before arriving at the final 11 designs. The designs are based on the Xconomy logo—two overlapping “X’s—but with a mix of small flourishes that represent each award category. For example, tiny light bulbs are on the “Big Idea” trophy. Some were harder than others, Kron says, like “Patient Partnership.”

“How do you show partnership?” Kron says. They chose interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. “We tried to do a handshake, but a handshake doesn’t really express well at that scale,” he adds.

The goal was to come up with intricate designs that would be “arduous” or impossible to make by hand, Kron says. “It has been fun,” he adds.