The 4th Dimension is a new series where we go behind the scenes with leaders in 3D printing to add a new dimension. Our Dan Slaski interviews Ryan Turk, Business Development Lead at Formlabs, and nerds-out on 3D printing. And nerd-out they did.
Dan Slaski: Can you provide a brief intro to Formlabs and your products?
Ryan Turk: Formlabs is a company that makes the most advanced 3D desktop printer ever. It has grown from a Kickstarter-funded startup to what is now the world’s biggest private 3D printing company. Despite that fact, we haven’t wavered from our customer-focused approach to designing amazing tools for creators. Our product range focuses on two “print engines”. The first is the Form 2, which is a desktop stereolithography machine that can print using a range of functional and aesthetic materials and results in high resolution, high accuracy, smooth prints. Our second print engine is the Fuse 1 selective laser sintering machine, which sinters nylon powder to create highly functional parts without the need for supports, which results in a uniform texture on the part.
Dan: Tell me about yourself and your role at Formlabs?
Ryan: I am an Atlanta native and graduate of Georgia Tech in mechanical engineering. I served 8 years in the Navy as a submarine officer, deploying four times to the Western Pacific. While transitioning from the Navy, I founded and ran a startup that designed and manufactured custom-fit diving masks using 3D scanning and a proprietary 3D printing mold process. After exiting that company, I joined Formlabs to lead a business development team focused on new markets.
Dan: The flavor of additive manufacturing technology most widely available to general consumers is Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). FDM machines are the most common in the home 3D printing market and makerspaces. They work by feeding a spooled thin plastic rod through a hot nozzle, extruding a melted bead that gets drawn layer by layer. A glorified hot glue gun. The materials frequently used are a corn-based or Lego plastic.
I have heard your technology described as “shooting lasers at goo”. Can you give a more eloquent but still highly oversimplified description of how your machines create parts?
Ryan: Slinging lasers, as we like to say. In stereolithography, a vat of liquid resin sits above an optics system consisting of a UV laser and two small aiming devices called galvanometers. This laser beam traces across the bottom layer of the resin in the same cross-sectional way that a FDM deposits material. The UV laser cures the photopolymer resin and a “layer” is formed. The build platform increments upward and the process repeats. The part is built from the bottom up.
Dan: What are the advantages of your technology?
Ryan: There are three primary advantages to the technology: 1) Isotropic parts, i.e. the part is solid and uniform throughout. This is important because the material’s mechanical properties are uniform throughout the part. 2) Surface finish. At the lowest step height of 25 microns, an SLA part printed on the Form 2 is nearly indistinguishable from an injection molded part, it’s perfectly smooth. 3) Precision. The laser spot size on the Form 2 is 140 microns and can be accurately positioned anywhere on the build plate. This results in high part accuracy and very small minimum features.
Dan: I did some snooping on Glass Door. Besides having a favorable overall rating, I was reading about Formlabs’ great perks and fun startup culture. One of the perks is, of course, unlimited free 3D printing. What makes being an employee there different from other jobs?
Ryan: Formlabs is indeed a great place to work and has retained its “start-up-y culture”. For example, lunch is catered 3 days a week, dogs are allowed in the building, 3D printers are literally everywhere, all full-time employees receive equity as part of their compensation, and there is a no-policy vacation policy. Add to this a diverse and intelligent workforce. I like to say that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone from a unique background (submarine officer, founder of an orphanage) or someone with an impressive degree (like a PHD in cognitive neuroscience on the marketing team).
What makes working here unique can be summed up in two ways: everyone is so smart it requires you to step up your game, and everyone believes in what we are doing: empowering creators.
Dan: What else makes Formlabs unique?
Ryan: Formlabs has an incredible install base of customers, with true grassroots passion for the product. At this time, I think we have over 40,000 printers out in the wild. This passion is evident when talking to customers, who come up to us at trade shows and gush about the product. I remember attending one particular major electronics trade show that was also attended by a competitor: a flashy, much-hyped 3D printer company. I walked up to their booth and spoke with one of their representatives. He saw my badge, looked from side-to-side, and whispered “I have a Form 2 and I LOVE it, please don’t tell anyone at my company or they would hate me”. You gotta love repping a product that has such a strong following.
Dan: Follow up question. To whom should I send my resume?
Ryan: Need to get back to you on the right contact, there are several that could work.
Dan: From an outsider’s perspective, the 3D printer space seems volatile and fickle. There are a lot of players and a high attrition rate. Add in challenges of designing a highly multidisciplinary product and complex intellectual property considerations and so on. Is this an accurate portrayal? What drives Formlabs to push through these obstacles? Is Formlabs a success in spite of these challenges or does it thrive on them?
Ryan: I think this is accurate to a point, but the trend is diminishing. Six to seven years ago was the peak of the hype: Makerbot and Formlabs were a big part of that and thus featured in the documentary, “Print the Legend”. There was a flood of entrants to the market, driven by the expiration of patents on FDM and SLA technology (followed soon by SLS). Back to your point, many companies did not anticipate the organizational costs of designing, developing, selling, and supporting a complex product. For example, many companies built their entire business model around an inexpensive machine, with a strategy to grow customer lifetime value through sales of consumables, etc. The market has proven that it is impossible to support an engineering, design, and support staff selling a sub-$1000 3D printer. The mass market that was expected to grow up around these machines never happened.
Today, there has been significant attrition, but I wouldn’t characterize it as volatile or fickle. The big players still remain. The newer entrants are well-funded and have clear strategies and markets.
My perception of how Formlabs pushed through this is by having immense technical talent from the very beginning, a connection and geographic proximity to MIT, and awareness that a race to the bottom was a losing strategy. Rather than focus on cost, we’ve focused on product quality and services. It helps that as companies shuttered, we attracted their best talent!
Dan: Through the decade and a half and hundreds of parts I have created, I haven’t lost enthusiasm for 3D printing. For me, it is a combination of the fast gratification and the wonder of turning an idea into something digital and then into something tangible and wholly unique. What excites you about the world of additive manufacturing personally and as a company?
Ryan: I share your passion. I still remember the first 3D print I ever created and I also remember the first print I ever made on a Formlabs machine. For me, it was equivalent to the first time I ever successfully welded. “I have joined two pieces of metal using fire!!” It must have been like the first caveman who built a fire from scratch.
Additive manufacturing lowers the barrier for making what’s in your head reality. Sounds simple but that is incredibly powerful, as you know. This is both from a cost and technical complexity viewpoint.
As a company, we are excited by unlocking applications with additive manufacturing that were previously impossible. We are trying to position ourselves as a manufacturing solution, but even more exciting is when additive manufacturing is the only solution for a particular application. This is especially true of mass customization applications (think custom fit shoes, custom fit sporting equipment, custom dental liners, etc.). Because every single person is different, every product configuration is different, and this is only possible using additive manufacturing because of near-zero incremental cost to changing the part design from person to person.
Dan: A common misconception is that additive manufacturing is strictly a prototyping technology. Direct digital manufacturing is creating production parts using additive manufacturing. There are interesting benefits to direct digital manufacturing. A combination of no tooling and designs that can’t be made using traditional fabrication processes allows not just for customization but the potential for fundamentally different new designs. Historically, designers have had to design around the processes, like injection molding. With additive manufacturing, there are fewer limitations, particularly with form. Can you talk about Formlabs’ view on direct digital manufacturing and how it can revolutionize design?
Ryan: Mass customization, which for us includes both consumer products but also industrial applications like fixturing, electrical connectors, and mass production, is an important strategy for Formlabs. This is also my area of focus at the company. My viewpoint is that additive is trying too hard to compete with traditional manufacturing, which has a long and mature ecosystem of hardware and materials behind it. The industry should focus more on applications for which digital manufacturing is the ONLY solution.
You bring up a good point about revolutionizing design, that’s an important paradigm shift that has yet to take place, from what I can see. Most customers that I interact with use as their default the material specifications, aesthetic, and design constraints of a traditional manufacturing process. They want 3D printed parts that look like and replicate the properties of injection molding for example. I encourage them to start from scratch (not always possible) and design with additive in mind from the beginning. That may require thicker bosses to account for weaker material, but it might also mean saving weight by employing latticing within the part.
One of my favorite authors on strategy is Ron Adner of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. He studies “innovation ecosystems” like computing and the internet: it requires advancement along a range of technologies to unleash the full benefits. Direct digital manufacturing is no different. To fully unleash the benefits of the concept, it will require steady and parallel development across hardware, software, materials science, and design.
Dan: We are individuals in terms of size, shape, and taste. In theory, mass customization will allow products that are tailored to fit and style. There is a quote “Don’t design for everyone. It’s impossible. All you end up doing is designing something that makes everyone unhappy”. It seems like sunglasses, headphones, shoes, and other accessories are at the nexus of this customization. What are you seeing as ideal applications for direct digital manufacturing and what companies are spearheading it?
Ryan: We see a lot of applications in footwear as you mentioned. Interestingly, although custom-fit footwear is interesting and delivers value to the customer, for footwear companies I think the value proposition is the ability to continue to expand customer choice while minimizing complexity. For example, one model of shoe, offered in size 7-14, in one or several colors, and maybe some widths, results in hundreds of SKUS; for just one model. All of these SKUs have associated design, manufacturing, and logistics costs. Direct digital manufacturing may add per-unit cost, but it simplifies and reduces cost at a macro scale.
We are seeing other applications at the intersection of technology readiness and value-from-customization. By technology readiness, I mean paying for the convenience and comfort of a pair that specifically fit me. But even in addition to that, additive manufacturing could facilitate part interchangeability, integrated electronics, and so on.
For a specific application like sunglasses, how do you think Formlabs products could be used to create new designs?
Dan: For on-demand product fabrication, there are huge logistics benefits like predicting and storing inventory. What are some other benefits that I am missing?
Ryan: Another benefit is making the product release cycle as agile as consumer demand is fickle. What I mean is, rather than predicting consumer demand or preference a season early, and then potentially stocking out-of-taste products, inventory is stored digitally and created on demand and can be modified much more quickly for much less cost.
Dan: In addition to what I mentioned earlier about new designs, relatively low capital cost and learning curves make 3D printing a gold rush for new small business opportunities. Are you witnessing this? Are there some examples you can share?
Ryan: I can’t share specific companies, but there is definitely an uptick in niche companies that tailor to a (traditionally) much smaller market because of the much lower capital costs associated with 3D printing-based businesses. Off the top of my head I know of viable businesses in: custom wedding accessories, custom diving equipment, custom grips and handles, small-scale custom eyewear, audiology, and toys/figurines/models.
Dan: What is Formlabs’ vision for how mass customization will look in practice? Will it be large printer warehouse factories, smaller more localized hubs, integrated into to existing stores, or something else?
Ryan: I think 3D printing will remain sufficiently technical and slow so as to prevent it from ever being a true “in store” manufacturing experience. I think a more likely future is localized hubs of manufacturing in big metro areas that still deliver on many of the distributed manufacturing promises of 3D printing, like lower logistics cost structure, lower warehousing costs, etc. but keeps the nitty gritty away from the store.
Dan: If you could put up a billboard in Times Square for Formlabs (or 3D printing), what would it say?
Ryan: Actually, we already did this: we 3D printed the largest Fresnel lens ever and installed it in Times Square for Valentine’s Day.
Dan: What cool things are Formlabs working on at the moment that you can talk about?
Ryan: We have announced the Fuse 1, a Selective-Laser-Sintering machine that fits on a benchtop. I’m excited about this machine because it is an order of magnitude less expensive than anything else on the market ($10K vs. $100s of k) and much simpler to operate (110V outlet, no inert gas, small footprint).
SLS parts are made in nylon and require no supports which results in very functional and very aesthetically pleasing parts. It’s a big step forward towards 3DP for production.
Dan: What are the main reasons companies give for resisting the adoption of direct digital manufacturing?
Ryan: Material properties. Companies have very strict requirements around materials, and most of the additive polymers just aren’t mature enough to either meet or address these requirements, such as strength, skin contact, UV stability, chemical composition, and surface finish. These are all factors that more mature material supply chains have tackled over decades, and which additive manufacturing is still in the process of addressing.
Cost per part. This is a function of machine cost + materials + labor. The biggest contributor to this equation is labor, in production use cases. Every 3DP process and machine requires some amount of post-processing that incurs a labor cost: removing parts from the machines, removing supports or extra material, cleaning, etc. For really big quantities, this starts to be a huge bottle neck when compared to traditional manufacturing.
Dan: Where is additive manufacturing now in its overall timeline from infancy to adulthood?
Ryan: I think Gartner’s hype cycle is a useful way to answer this question. Google Gartner hype cycle, but the major points along the curve, in order, are “Peak of Inflated Expectations”, “Plateau of Productivity”, “Slope of Enlightenment”, and “Trough of Disillusionment. For example, 3D printing for prototyping is solidly in adulthood on the plateau of productivity, whereas biological 3D printing is still very much in its infancy.
Overall,the industry is trying to grow up by figuring out a way to compete as a viable manufacturing technology, but it is relatively early. That’s proven by the fact that 3DP companies like Carbon and Desktop Metal are receiving so much attention because they have positioned themselves as production solutions from day one.
Dan: As additive manufacturing merges with other technologies, like AI, what possibilities will open?
Ryan: This is an interesting question and I think one of the more promising applications is around generative design, which is a methodology where a part is highly optimized around a set of functional requirements and constraints and less around how the part will be manufactured. This yields the crazy, bionic-looking, bracket designs you may have seen. These are possible through the combination of advanced computing (some of which is enabled by AI) and additive manufacturing, which allows those complex, organic shapes to be produced without added cost. The result is highly optimized parts that are as strong and light as physics allows. I recently attended a presentation where a major airline used this technique, together with 3D printing, to redesign the mounts for their aircraft seats. Because of the weight savings, the company will save $10M over the life of the aircraft.
Dan: We all know how watching 3D printers is mesmerizing and consequently has virtually decimated the lava lamp industry. Can you describe the remorse you feel for this once booming industry?
Ryan: This is a fair point and it gets overlooked by the media, but the loss of Lava-lamp R&D has steadily declined since the advent of 3D printing. In response, many of the largest brands in 3D printing have joined forces for a project called “Save the Lamp” that seeks to restore and preserve these cherished objects.