When 3D printing went mainstream and gaining popularity in the mid-2010s, it was hyped as it could be. Evangelists told us it would fundamentally change the way goods are made and usher in a bold new era of creative freedom. Soon, they said, we could make anything we wanted, Star Trek replicator-style, from the comfort of our homes as needed.
But of course, 3D printing has not really fulfilled this lofty dream. Instead, it caused a brief stir and then largely returned to the sidelines. It was adopted in hobby workshops and state-of-the-art product design laboratories, but didn’t change the face of manufacturing in the way many had hoped it would.
Why? Well, despite some major advances, additive manufacturing has been hampered by the lack of variety in material options. You can print anything you want – as long as it’s made of plastic. Because of this, the technology has been used primarily to make prototypes rather than durable end-use parts.
But that’s starting to change. To get a better sense of where things are going, we met with Formlabs – arguably one of the most innovative and agile companies in the industry – at CES 2021 to gain an insight into the future of product manufacturing.
From machines to materials
At CES 2021, the latest thing Formlabs is showing isn’t a fancy new machine. It’s a material. Specifically, a new wax-based resin that enables ultra-fine, detailed prints that can be cast and used to make molds for jewelry making.
It’s certainly not the most eye-catching technology to make headlines at CES, but while that one material doesn’t seem particularly significant on its own, it’s a perfect example of where the 3D printing industry is headed. The focus is shifting more and more away from hardware innovations and improvements to machines and more towards expanding the range of materials with which these machines can produce material.
The level of detail on the surface of this ring is insane. Notice how my fingerprints look huge compared to the virtually invisible layer lines Drew Prindle
“WeI’ve always focused on materials, “says Kathy Bui, Verticallead Engineering at Formlabs,” but there has been a lot of emphasis on them lately, especially because the technology on the hardware side is slowly maturing. In the end, a 3D printer is a tool. A great tool, but really no materials, makes the tool less powerful. Our renewed focus on materials is therefore intended to unlock new uses and allow people to do more with the tool, as this tool is only as good as what comes out of it. “
To illustrate this point, Formlabs Digital Trends sent a sample box of items displaying some of the company’s latest materials. Many of these would have been unfathomable on a desktop printer just a few years ago – like a 3D printed spring that’s as strong and springy as metal, a heat-resistant dryer attachment that won’t melt at high temperatures, and a bottle opener that is almost as hard how steel is. There is even a new line of biocompatible resins in the range that can be used to print medical devices.
“It’s a big change,” says Bui. “I think it opens the door to a lot of developments in consumer products.”
Building beyond prototypes
Importantly, Formlabs is not alone in this pursuit. The shift in focus from hardware to materials engineering is happening across the additive manufacturing industry. Large companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems as well as newer competitors like Carbon 3D are stepping up their efforts in material development and are increasingly using their extensive material libraries to differentiate themselves from the competition. The race for mastery of the materials is on.
It’s not easy to tell by looking at them, but these objects are made from some of the most modern materials on earth. Everyone has completely different physical properties, although they start out as a puddle of viscous goosebumps. Drew Prindle
But what exactly does that mean for the future? From Formlabs’ perspective, this means turning away from prototyping and finally ushering in the future we’ve dreamed of for the past decade.
“In terms of the next five or ten years,” says Bui, “I think the industry as a whole is likely to move towards end use and more production use – not so much towards prototyping.”
However, she is quick to note that the usefulness of 3D printing for prototyping is not 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 can make dramatically better prototypes – ones that actually have the properties and capabilities they are looking for.
“We’ll probably see much better human design products because you can test and fail quickly, over and over again. So I think the product development cycle will get even shorter in the next few years and see even better products than it is now. “
While you probably won’t be jumping up and down with excitement about the company’s latest resin, you should definitely be excited to see what this resin – and others who like it – will make possible in the near future.