Fabbaloo had a chance to sit down with Formlabs’ founder and CEO Max Lobovsky and find out what’s happening at Formlabs.
Fabbaloo: This is the first day of CES and you and several other companies announced stuff. What did you announce?
Max Lobovsky: We announced a couple of things today. We announced a new material, a ceramic resin. This is one of the most exciting things we are announcing. It is a material that comes in a cartridge, prints in a printer just like normal. But it is filled with ceramic particles. And it makes what is called a “green part”. You put that in a furnace and fire it just like traditional ceramics. You get a dense, solid ceramic part at the end. This is something that’s pretty exciting because it works even with our existing system, and is not only a new material but a completely new class of materials. It is not another plastic, it is actually ceramic. It can be made to make home goods, dinner plates.
Fabbaloo: Is it food safe?
Max Lobovsky: Yes. We haven’t specifically tested it for that, but it is the same ceramic materials used to make plates. Those materials are not typically certified specifically. But I may follow up on that, because we may have done some testing that I do not know about. It is definitely intended for that purpose. Once it comes out of the furnace there is no polymer left on it.
Fabbaloo: That adds to your existing selection of materials. You had clear, grey, black…
Max Lobovsky: We have 4 colors in the base material: clear, grey, black, white. Now we are up to 4 or 5 functional materials: casting material for jewelers, tough, high impact strength, high temperature, a durable that is flexible and dental specific biocompatible material.
The interesting thing that we are doing with this material is that we are launching it with a program we call “Form X”. This is a brand that we use to put experimental projects under, things that are intended for more advanced users. The ceramic material, because it requires furnace and some knowledge on how to process ceramics, it takes a bit of knowledge on how to work with this powder materials so we wanted to make that clear.
Fabbaloo: So, Form X is a brand that we can expect to see really interesting things?
Max Lobovsky: One thing that we have already announced that we put under that brand is what we call “OpenFL”, which is open API access to Form 1 and Form 1+. That’s actually been out, so we never did a huge release for it. It was more intended for developers.
Fabbaloo: So how does that work? What are the API’s for?
Max Lobovsky: It lets you access the Form 1 machines at one of two levels. Either the lowest level machine commands, our equivalent to GCODE. Or higher level which is our material files which is a set of parameters. We released that for Form 1 intended for researchers. That has actually been out for a little while and people are starting to pick it up. We are hoping to showcase some of the work that has happened on there. There is a decent amount of research happening. And we have a few other things lined up over the next year that will come out under the Form X brand.
Fabbaloo: These will be materials, I presume?
Max Lobovsky: Materials yes, but also things like open API access. Our challenge is that we have our core use cases of someone who has a model that they developed one way or the other and they need it printed. And they actually just want that to happen. They want to spend the least amount of time and the least amount of knowledge on the machine and we built our company and were the first company to go after that on the desktop system. And we have been successful delivering on that. We want to make sure that is the experience expected from Formlabs products, but there are so many interesting things you can do by adding a little bit more knowledge, being able to experiment. We want to be able to support that, but making it clear that this isn’t that “one click print” type of experience that will go on the Form X brand.
One of the little demos that was part of OpenFL we released examples of what we can do with it. One of those was exposing pre-coated PCB’s so that laser can do the photo exposure on PCB’s. There is a demo piece of code and we would like to develop that further to the point where maybe it is not a production PCB etching solution, but it can work for some people. That is the type of thing that we would put under Form X in the future.
Fabbaloo: You are extending the use of the machine?
Max Lobovsky: Yes, absolutely. Without changing the hardware.
Fabbaloo; So now the API’s make a lot of sense to me.
Max Lobovsky: Yes. What we have done, just forget the optic System that is on Form 2, the galvanometers that are in there because we designed them ourselves, we are manufacturing them at quite a high volume, as far as galvanometers are concerned, you can’t even get just that – those galvanometers for much less for the price of a Form 2. To have that in a working system that you can plug in and use - a lot of people want to use these things for other applications. Same with materials; There are a lot of materials that can work but with some more constraints. That you can’t just throw arbitrary objects at. You need to know how to post-process, for example.
Fabbaloo: Makes sense. We have been seeing a huge amount of interest in what would be considered exotic materials in the 3D print space but in the engineering traditional space they are the “normal and desirable” materials from the engineer’s point of view, and “why can’t I use the normal materials?” We are seeing a lot of machines and material suppliers address that by coming up with the right hardware and materials. Are you guys in that game as well?
Max Lobovsky: Definitely! The ceramics resin is a perfect example of that. That is why Form X is important. If you look at what people are doing with composite, carbon fiber, reinforced materials, there are amazing things you can do but they are not quite what I would say is a true 3D printer in that they are closer to a traditional manufacturing process, where you need to have knowledge of how the process works, design your part for it, and that is great. And there are things like that, that can exist around stereolithography but again we need to make sure that people know that we deliver a one-click-print thing and it just works. That is the core proposition. We can’t dilute that.
Fabbaloo: You announced the Form 2, are we going to see further improvements to the machine?
Max Lobovsky: Yes (laughs). One thing I can say is that there have been a lot of improvements already that we haven’t even announced that we have rolled out continuously. That is one challenging thing being a fast-developing company is that we want to make those changes quickly. We had Form 1 and Form 1+ and we decided that there were enough changes to warrant the new name. We don’t want to dilute it and if we say something is new it better be a big valuable thing.
There were quite a few incremental improvements. We improved surface finish, galvo and optical system, improvements to the calibration processes at the factory, etc.
One great thing is because we launched a dental material last year and targeted the dental market, we had to really push the accuracy requirements as that application is very demanding. The improvements we did specially for dental that we propagated through small hardware improvements and material file improvements. Form 2 today is definitely a better machine then when we first shipped.
Fabbaloo: How do you go about deciding which things to fix or improve?
Max Lobovsky: It is a good question. We have gotten a lot better at that. In the early days of Form 1 it was kind of obvious because we saw honestly big problems that we knew we had to get through; furiously getting through them as fast as possible.
Now we are at the point where we must look a little deeper, at more subtle things. Can this material get to a little higher resolution or there may be some failures on this sort of certain type of part. Now we have a nice system where we have a trusted tester program, certain customers that we are engaged with deeply with reporting back. We have data that we are getting back from everybody.
The Form 2, after the print is done, it asks you did the print succeed? Yes or No? And that is really valuable! We get that data back, without the specific “geometry” information, but all this metadata about what type of material you are printing, how big is the model, etc. So we look through that and we can say if we are having problems with this part or that part and just to see how well the product is doing overall. Pushing that success rate is the most important thing we can do.
Fabbaloo: Materials: Open materials or closed materials? How do you feel about that?
Max Lobovsky: We built Form 2 and the company around delivering software and hardware materials that work together. We think that is the only way today that you can delivers a “works-out-of-the-box” machine. I think that has proven true with other printers as well. There certainly is a market interest in and some advantage in having an open system and that is partly why we have open mode on Form 2 we do have the capability to run 3rd party material. It is not exactly the same experience as running our material. OpenFL lets you do quite a bit with Form 1 but the way we see these things is that most customers are demanding certain material properties and a printer that works well – that is what we are focused on delivering. There are a certain small but important set of people looking to experiment and go further. We are trying to find ways to work with that while keeping the central focus on delivering the end-to-end system.
That’s part 1 of the interview; stay tuned for part 2.