The cover of this month’s Wired magazine shows Makerbot’s founder, Bre Pettis, holding the Replicator 2, the company’s slick new 3-D printer. A few lines of accompanying text make a bold pronouncement: "This machine will change the world." The article itself hedges that bet a bit. The gist is that even if the Replicator 2 isn’t the 3-D printer that finds its way into the home of John Q. Public, its polished build and ease of use signal an important step toward that future. But if we’re being honest, your average person probably hasn’t even heard of 3-D printing, and if he has, he probably doesn’t have much of an idea what it could do for him. Unless, that is, that person happens to work in one of the many fields in which rapid prototyping is an increasingly indispensable part of the design process. These are the people that Formlabs, a new outfit started by an alum from MIT’s Media Lab, is targeting with their first piece of hardware, the Form 1. Essentially, it’s a 3-D printer for designers, by designers.
The dream, for those at Makerbot and Formlabs alike, is that rapid manufacturing will someday offer a viable alternative to mass-production. Instead of buying an iPhone case from a company’s website and having it shipped to me, I’ll be able to look at a virtual library of designs and print my own, right from home. Yoav Reches, the lead industrial designer at Formlabs, told me that this dream is definitely one his team believes in, but at this point, they’re more concerned with the role 3-D printing can play in the design process. "I think the main focus," Reches says, "is research and development. [With 3-D printing] you can change a measurement; you can allow yourself to think in small numbers; you don’t have to commit to molds--it’s kind of heaven, in terms of design." Basically, the Form 1 is intended not for the person who wants to print their own iPhone case but for the independent designer who’s making one.
To offer a more concrete example, Cranor explained how having a 3-D printer in the office helped as they were developing the Form 1 itself. "We were able to make tweaks to the prototypes really quickly. Because it’s like, 'Oh, we want to try out a new servo motor. Should we go to the machine shop and spend a bunch of time measuring and drilling and cutting and milling if we just want to be able to mount this new motor to our device?' No, we didn’t do that, we had an intern look at the data sheet of the servo, quickly CAD up a little mount, and then we 3-D printed it and bolted it onto the device." Up until now, there wasn’t really a 3-D printer designed specifically with this type of rapid prototyping in mind.
The issue, members of the Formlabs team explained to me, is one of quality. For years, there has been a huge gulf between the results you can get from a professional-quality 3-D printer (which can cost $10,000 and up) and the more affordable hobbyist machines like the original Makerbot. The latter were sufficient for curious early adopters and tinker-happy makers, but they couldn’t really deliver the resolution and reliability designers often needed in the prototyping process. "We’re a company of designers and engineers ourselves," David Cranor, one of Formlabs’ founders explained to me, "and there just wasn’t anything out there for us that would do what we needed to do at the price point we needed. So we all got together and decided to make our own dream 3-D printer." And what kind of qualities does an independent designer’s dream 3-D printer have? Resolution, reliability, and repeatability. Basically, high-end results at a low-end price tag.
The central difference between the Form 1, which Formlabs is selling for $2,700, and other relatively affordable 3-D printers is the method they employ for printing. The Replicator 2 and others are extrusion-based machines, in which heated plastic is laid down layer by layer. The Form 1 uses the stereolithographic approach found in higher-end printers, where malleable material is hardened by exposure to certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light. Using stereolithography, the Form 1 can print layers down to 25 microns tall, about 1/1,000th of an inch, and four times smaller than the Replicator 2's 100 micron layers. The UV-hardening resin is significantly more expensive than the simple plastics used by the extrusion machines, but Formlabs is guaranteeing customers at least 1 liter of resin per month at $129 for the lifetime of the machine, and Cranor tells me they’re now working on developing "a huge palette of materials" to work with the printer.
The Form 1's distinction as a different type of 3-D printer--one intended to fill the gap between the hobbyist printers and ultra-expensive professional models--is evident in the look of the machine itself; its clean aluminum base makes it look more like a high-end kitchen appliance than a DIY machine. But not all designers are gear heads at heart, and the Form 1 was constructed with this in mind. Reches told me the team took great pains to make the printing process as simple as possible, from the straightforward software the team developed to the post-processing tools included in the package, intended to help people manage the somewhat messy stereolithographic process. In his 15 years in the field, Reches explained, he found that studios were often divided into "the dirty area" and "the clean area"--one side "dusty" and "full of chemicals" and the other kept tidy for computers and paper work. With the Form 1, he says, "I think we managed to cross this boundary."
The independent designers and engineers of the world seem to agree. In just a week and change, more than 1,000 people have pledged $1.5 million to the project on Kickstarter, essentially amounting to nearly 500 preorders for the machine. We might still be a ways off from buying 3-D printers at Walmart and printing iPhone cases (or, by that time, Google Glasses croakies) in our homes, but the enthusiasm the Form 1 has been met with shows that there is a demand for the technology right now. "3-D printing that everyone has access to on their kitchen table is definitely something that’s going to happen in the future," Cranor told me. "But there are a few steps that need to happen before that."