The future of making stuff: Inside the evolution of 3D printing with Formlabs

When 3D printing went mainstream in the mid-2010s and exploded in popularity, it was about as hyped up as it possibly could be. Evangelists told us it would fundamentally transform the way goods were made, and usher in a bold new era of creative freedom. Soon, they said, we’d be able to fabricate anything we wanted on-demand, Star Trek replicator style, right from the comfort of our own homes.

But of course, 3D printing didn’t really live up to that high-flying dream. Instead, it made a momentary splash and then largely returned to the fringes, gaining adoption in hobbyist workshops and cutting-edge product design labs, but not really changing the face of manufacturing in the way many hoped it might.

Why? Well despite making some big leaps forward, additive manufacturing has been hamstrung by a lack of variety in materials options. You can print anything you want — as long as it’s plastic. That’s why the technology has mainly been used for producing prototypes and not durable end-use parts.

But that’s starting to change. To get a better sense of where things are headed, we caught up with Formlabs — arguably one of the most innovative and agile companies in the industry — at CES 2021 to get an inside look at the future of making stuff.

From machines to materials

At CES 2021, the latest thing that Formlabs is showing off isn’t a fancy new machine. It’s a material. Specifically, a new wax-based resin designed to enable ultrafine, high-detail prints that can be cast and used to create molds for jewelry making.

It’s certainly not the most flashy bit of tech to headline with at CES, but while this one material by itself might not seem particularly significant, it’s a perfect illustration of where the 3D printing industry is heading. More and more, the focus is shifting away from hardware innovations and improvements on machinery, and more toward expanding the range of materials those machines can create stuff with.

The level of surface detail on this ring is insane. Notice how my fingerprints look enormous compared to the layer lines, which are practically invisible Drew Prindle

“We‘ve always been kind of focused on materials,” says Kathy Bui, Formlabs’ engineering verticallead, “but there’s a big emphasis on them recently mostly because the technology on the hardware side is starting to mature. In the end, a 3D printer is a tool. So having a great tool, but really no materials to go along with it, makes the tool less powerful. So our renewed emphasis on materials is intended to unlock new applications and allow people to do more things with the tool, because that tool is only as good as what comes out of it.”

To illustrate this point, Formlabs sent Digital Trends a sample box filled with objects that showcase some of the company’s latest materials. Many of these would have been unfathomable to pull off on a desktop-sized printer just a few years ago — like a 3D printed spring that’s as strong and springy as metal, a heatproof dryer attachment that won’t melt at high temps, and a bottle opener that’s nearly as hard as steel. There’s even a new suite of biocompatible resins in the lineup that makes it possible to print medical devices.

“It’s a huge step change,” says Bui. “I think it opens the door for a lot of consumer product development.”

Building beyond prototypes

Importantly, Formlabs isn’t alone in this pursuit. The shift in focus from hardware to materials engineering is happening across the additive manufacturing industry. Big players like Stratasys and 3D Systems, as well as newer contenders like Carbon 3D, are also stepping up their efforts in materials development, and increasingly using their extensive materials libraries as a way to differentiate themselves from competitors. The race to master materials is on.

You can’t tell just from looking at them, but these objects are made from some of the most cutting-edge materials on Earth. Each one has a completely different set of physical properties, despite starting life as a puddle of viscous goop. Drew Prindle

But what exactly does that mean for the future? As Formlabs sees it, it means moving away from prototyping and finally ushering in the print-anything-on-demand future we’ve been dreaming about for the past decade.

“In terms of the next five or 10 years,” says Bui, “I think the industry as a whole is probably going to start moving towards end-use and more manufacturing use — not as much focus on prototyping.”

However, she’s quick to note that 3D printing’s utility for prototyping isn’t going away anytime soon, and that 3D printers will still be an invaluable resource for product designers. The difference is that, with better materials, they’ll be able to produce dramatically better prototypes — ones that actually have the qualities and abilities that they’re looking for.

“We’ll probably see much better design products for people because you can test and fail quickly and again and again. So in the next few years, I think that the product development cycle will shorten even more and see even better products than we have now.”

So while you probably aren’t jumping up and down with excitement over the company’s latest resin, you should definitely be excited for what that resin — and others like it — will make possible in the near future.

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