3D printer manufacturer Formlabs has released the latest iteration of its stereolithography (SLA)-based desktop system, the large-format Form 3L.
The company announced its newest machine last year, and since then, it has worked with a range of key clients to optimize its printer for applications in the footwear, industrial and medical sectors. As a result, the Form 3L may still be designed as an affordable and accessible printer, but it now features an upgraded build volume, and the future 3BL edition will include bio-resin compatibility.
According to Stefan Hollaender, Managing Director of Formlabs EMEA, the Form 3L’s enlarged printing platform has been introduced by popular demand.
“Large-format SLA is something that everybody has been thinking about, but so far, you don’t see a lot of products out there,” said Hollaender. “Most of our customers have always questioned, why do I have to send it outsource it to an office or service bureau, and send files to get printed materials back?”
“After the Form 3, the next step for us was not only to achieve the highest part quality, but to increase the print size, so now the build volume is five times bigger than it was before,” he added.
“We are looking forward to seeing how this new technology will be used in industries like automotive and aerospace, that need the large build platform to best utilize 3D printing.”
Formlabs’ existing product portfolio
Founded in 2011, Formlabs is known as a manufacturer of 3D printing systems and resins, and launched the first edition in its ‘Form’ range in 2012. This was promptly followed by the Forms one plus, two and the release of its most recent printer, the Form 3 last year. In total, the company now has over 200 global sales partners, allowing it to ship more than 70,000 systems to customers worldwide.
Since gaining ‘unicorn’ status in August 2018, with the company’s valuation exceeding $1 billion, Formlabs’ desktop machines have been deployed in a variety of applications. Working with shaving brand Gillette for instance, the company introduced a pilot project which enabled the mass customization of shaving blades using 3D printing.
Elsewhere, students from the University of Rhode Island (URI) used a Form 2 system to demonstrate the possibilities of 3D printing at sea. More recently, Formlabs has targeted the medical and dental markets by launching its first range of biocompatible resins, and a dedicated dental business unit.
The company also partnered with GE Healthcare to 3D print anatomical models and German firm BEGO, which to make its dental materials become compatible with Formlabs’ machines. Now, with the launch of its new Form 3L system, Formlabs is continuing to target the lucrative medical and dental 3D printing markets, by enabling the production of patient-specific end-use products.
The new Formlabs 3L 3D printer
Formlabs’ latest 3L system is based on the same Low Force Stereolithography (LFS) 3D printing technology featured in last year’s Form 3. The company’s proprietary additive manufacturing technique reduces peak forces within layers, which reportedly leads to faster production times and yields parts with a higher level of accuracy than conventional SLA.
Although Formlabs didn’t release the full specifications of the Form 3L, it did reveal that the printer’s build volume would be expanded to 33 x 20 x 30cm. Leveraging the 3L’s bigger 14.5 x 14.5 x 18.5cm print capacity, customers will now be able to print larger-scale SLA parts, or a higher number of small components within a single build.
While working with long-term sportswear partner New Balance, Formlabs found that the Form 3L’s larger print bed had a considerable impact on its ability to produce end-use insoles.
“It was one of the biggest discussions that we had with one of our partners, New Balance,” explained Hollaender. “We are printing midsoles together, but we had to stop at shoe size 38, which they didn’t really like so much. Now we are printing up to 46 or seven, and that is something that is helping a lot.”
“After a thorough investigation, we found that this print size was the ideal spot to allow us to capture at least the 90 percent of the demand in the market.”
In addition to expanding the 3L’s capacity, Formlabs has focused on enhancing the system’s reliability and ease-of-use. By combining the Light Processing Unit (LPU) found in the Form 3 with the open laser systems of its predecessors, the firm has managed to fit the 3L with an upgraded double LPU setup. The 3L’s improved system of lenses and mirrors reportedly allows clients to deliver more accurate and repeatable prints in small batch production runs.
In terms of usability, the firm is aiming to achieve a level of “ease-of-use that is still unreached in the industry.” Formlabs’ simplified print preparation and cloud-based software has been designed to streamline the manufacturing workflow, and make part fabrication as easy as possible. The 3L machine in particular, features an automated resin dispensing system, which reportedly enables non-stop throughput for more scalable production.
“One of the core things that we have always been discussing with our customers, is making our system easy to use,” added Hollaender. “It needs to be something that you can just go forward quickly, where you can build print farms, for instance. That’s why we have cloud monitoring, making printing easy to maintain, even from a distance, so you can remotely start prints and check-in to see if something needs to be done.”
The Form 3BL’s dental and medical applications
In addition to the launch of its 3L system, Formlabs has also announced that it plans to release a Form 3BL machine later this year. The 3BL will reportedly feature similar specifications to that of the 3L, but the system’s enhanced software package will enable it to process an enhanced range of biomaterials.
To support its upcoming machine, Formlabs is currently seeking approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a new series of biocompatible resins. Following the addition of the new materials, plus two more that are specifically being certified for use within the E.U, the firm will offer a total of 27 different resin variants.
The 3BL is very much aimed at Formlabs’ traditional customer base, and it has been optimized by the firm’s dental team to meet the exact accuracy requirements for aligner production. “Each application has very specific needs, and it cannot be brittle, it has to be super durable and biocompatible,” said Hollaender. “As for dentures, temporary crowns and bridges, we’re going to launch permanent crowns and bridges, and surgical guides as well.”
Reflecting Formlabs’ medical-oriented approach with the 3BL, the firm has worked closely in its development with a number of hospitals and healthcare practices. In one such case, a local hospital was able to 3D print a fully-sized femur using a more life-like material, and in a larger size than was possible with Formlabs’ previous machines.
Hollaender concluded that the enhanced printing capabilities of both Formlabs’ new machines was necessary to cater for the firm’s increasingly broad range of clients. “This is a large ecosystem that we now work with,” said Hollaender.
“From engineering and in-car manufacturing, to dental labs, and medical companies who helped through the COVID-19 crisis with printing nasal swabs. So it’s really a large variety, and for us it’s super interesting to deal and cope with all those customers,” he added.
The Form 3L is now available via the Formlabs website for €16,000, and all pre-ordered 3L printers are now being shipped. Formlabs’ upcoming Form 3BL machine is open for pre-orders, and is expected to ship in 2021.
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Featured image shows Formlabs’ new 3L system, and upcoming 3BL 3D printer. Image via Formlabs.