Back in June of 2011, Mitch Kapor was enjoying dinner on the outdoor patio of Legal Sea Foods in Harvard Square. At a nearby table, a pair of fresh-faced recent MIT grads were trying to impress a prospective investor, and Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corp., one of the first software giants of the PC era, couldn’t resist sending out a tweet: “Overhearing 2 entrepreneurs pitching low-end 3D printer to a VC.”
The entrepreneurs had never met Kapor, and they didn’t meet him that evening. But after a friend pointed out his tweet to them, they arranged for a get-together the next time Kapor was in town. Kapor, who now invests in start-ups like the transportation app Uber and the virtual world Second Life, warned that he didn’t invest in companies working on physical products. But he was dazzled by the prototype 3-D printer that David Cranor and Maxim Lobovsky had built, which in a few hours could transform three-dimensional objects designed on a computer — perhaps a new car body or Bluetooth earpiece — into actual models, made of a hardened polymer material.
Kapor put money in. So did Joi Ito, the director of MIT’s Media Lab. And so did Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google. This Wednesday, Formlabs plans to unveil its printer, the Form 1, and start taking orders. It will sell for less than $3,000, which the Cambridge start-up hopes will be a sufficiently eye-catching price for it to attract a first wave of product designers and architects as customers.
While 3-D printers may be a futuristic device for which most of us can’t imagine a use, the number of such devices on the market is growing by the month. Last week, Brooklyn-based MakerBot introduced its second-generation product, the $2,200 Replicator 2, and in May both Stratasys and 3D Systems introduced printers priced under $10,000. Why the sudden surge?
John McEleney likens it to the 1980s, when Macintosh computers, design software, and laser printers kicked off the desktop publishing revolution, allowing anyone to create professional-looking newsletters and catalogs. McEleney, a Winchester resident who serves on the board of publicly traded Stratasys and previously ran a company that made software for designing 3-D objects, says: “You’ve got millions of users creating 3-D content now, with software from Autodesk and SolidWorks and PTC. You’ve got the Apple effect, where everyone places a real premium on great design. And you have engineers and designers who want to be able to physically hold a product in their hands. All those things are reinforcing each other.”
At Continuum, a West Newton design firm, most of the projects that designers work on get sent to outside companies when it’s time to crank out a prototype, says Richard Ciccarelli, who runs the firm’s modeling and prototyping group. “What’s exciting is that these inexpensive new 3-D printers will give us the ability to iterate more rapidly in-house, and get prototypes in hours, versus days,” he says. Ciccarelli says he’s currently shopping for a new printer.
One of the first companies to begin bringing down the price of 3-D printers, in the mid-1990s, was Z Corp., another MIT spinout like Formlabs. It relied on inexpensive components from inkjet printers to spritz a binding fluid onto a bed of powder, causing it to harden. (Z Corp.’s first printer sold for $60,000; earlier this year, the Burlington company was acquired by 3D Systems of South Carolina, one of the more established players in the industry.)
Similarly, Formlabs found that it could use a Blu-ray laser — the same kind that high-definition DVD players use — to cause a light-sensitive liquid polymer material to harden. “Thanks to Sony developing Blu-ray DVD players, we’re able to use a $10 laser in the printer instead of a $10,000 laser,” says Cranor. The laser, steered by a pair of mirrors, passes over one layer of liquid, telling it which areas need to “become” the object being printed, and then a platform lifts the object up a bit, and the laser adds another layer. The platform is 5 inches square, enabling the printer to turn out objects that are that wide and about 6.5 inches tall.
Among the models on display in Formlabs’ Cambridge headquarters — all produced by the Form 1 — are an incredibly-detailed Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, King Neptune, and a rook-sized castle with a DNA helix and a spiral staircase tucked away in its hollow interior. “The part quality that it can produce is absolutely astounding,” says Marina Hatsopoulos, a former chief executive of Z Corp. “They could sell this machine for a lot more than $3,000.”
While 3-D printers have traditionally looked like oversized Xerox machines, Formlabs chief executive Natan Linder says, “The Holy Grail of the 3-D printing industry is something that you’d want to put on your desktop.” On that measure, Formlabs has succeeded: with a brushed aluminum base and an orange plexiglass cover, the printer resembles a prop designed for a J.J. Abrams sci-fi film. Formlabs has just 12 employees.
Analyst Terry Wohlers, who has long tracked the business of 3-D printing, says the overall market has been growing at about 30 percent recently. While companies like MakerBot and LeapFrog have been generating headlines by offering low-end printers to hobbyists for around $1,000, Wohlers says that “the real money is currently in professional-grade industrial systems.”
That could be good news for Formlabs, which is trying to position the Form 1 as an inexpensive device that can produce objects at a resolution equal to a machine that costs $10,000 or more. Formlabs plans to start taking orders for the printer this week.
But will a 3-D printer ever become common in homes, used to print out a new attachment for the vacuum cleaner, or a replacement for a missing Lego piece? McEleney says that actually getting software to send a printable object to a printer is “still a complicated process. That vision is still a ways off, where you’ll be able to reprint a broken handle for your coffee mug and glue it on.”
And yet . . . McEleney says that when a cosmetic panel on the inside of his BMW’s door popped off recently, the dealership told him it would cost $700 to replace the whole unit. So he asked his contacts at Stratasys if they could scan the piece and print him out a replacement. They did, and that’s now what covers the seat-heater switch in his car.
Formlabs isn’t yet focusing on that kind of consumer usage, but it could prove to be one of the companies that leads us in that direction.Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.