Formlabs Makes Inroads in “Hype-Driven” Sector With New 3D Printers

Xconomy Boston — 

Formlabs founder and CEO Max Lobovsky still sees a fair amount of hype swirling around the 3D printing world.

He claims to have never been onboard with the Jetsons-like vision of a 3D printer as a household appliance that spits out toys, kitchen utensils, furniture—anything that can be imagined, really.

“We started with the thinking that desktop printers make sense, but … for the professional,” rather than in the household, Lobovsky tells Xconomy.

“A lot of people are still in this hype-driven mode where they think there is some single breakthrough that is going to dramatically change the market,” he adds. “People just don’t want to make stuff at home, most people. There is a hobbyist market, and maybe around Boston and Cambridge there is a higher percent of people who want to make something at home, but that’s not most of the world.”

Even as the industry has fallen short of some peoples’ transformational expectations, a handful of 3D printing companies have survived—and thrived—by targeting engineers, designers, even manufacturers curious about the technology’s potential. And investors are taking notice. Just in the Boston area, Markforged, whose printers spit out components made of metal and composite materials, last month raised $82 million, and Desktop Metal closed a $160 million funding round in January.

Somerville, MA-based Formlabs, which launched in 2012 with a crowdfunding campaign. The company went on to raise $15 million in August, a sum that pushed its paper valuation over the $1-billion “unicorn” threshold. Formlabs also has its focus trained on professionals rather than consumers, and its newest products launched today are aiming at letting users create items that are smoother to the touch; prototype with a new faster materials; and allow space to print larger parts.

Formlabs says its new Form 3 printer and larger-format Form 3L printer use a new “low force stereolithography,” a computer-aided approach to making 3D objects using laser light. Doing so adds flexibility to the printing surface where lasers attach layers of material to parts, Lobovsky says. That flexibility reduces the forces disturbing each layer of the part as components of the 3D printer move from one side to the other.

The company also released a “draft resin” plastic for printing that prints layers 300 microns thick (a micron is one millionth of a meter). It’s less smooth than other plastic materials available, but at three-to-four times faster than standard plastics to make for more rapid prototyping, Formlabs says.

“There are times when you don’t want that resolution and detail, and you just want speed,” Lobovsky says.

The Form 3L offers five times the building space for designer seeking larger products. It is powered by two Formlabs optical laser units. Lobovsky says no printers in the Formlabs’ price range offer that printing volume.

Customized consumer items are a target for Formlabs. The company has had partnerships with New Balance on specially designed spikes and cleats, and it also works with Gillette on custom-designed razor handles. Dental work is also a big market for Formlabs.

The company says it is turning a profit and has shipped 50,000 printers, which have so far produced more than 40 million parts.

With 3D printing become a crowded sector, companies have managed to “step on each other’s toes” a bit, Lobovsky says. Formlabs has weathered its share of patent lawsuits, including separate disputes with South Carolina-based 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD) and Michigan-based EnvisionTEC. In November, Italian 3D printing technology company DWS Systems and Formlabs sued each other in Virginia over a stereolithography patent. Since then both companies have agreed to dismiss the case.