Natan Linder Founder Formlabs


Osborn: Tell me how you got from working on the augmented reality to Formlabs. Can you go into what Formlabs does and what the Form 1 is?

Linder: Sure.  This might be surprising to you, but what I’m trying to do with augmented reality and creating new form factors is not that different in principle from what the Form 1 is doing. The Form 1 is a new form factor 3D printer. It’s trying to offer a new design, both in the product  design sense and in the usability and the technology, making high-resolution  3D printing afford- able and accessible for designers, engineers, and makers right on their desks. While that has been a promise, it’s yet to be fulfilled despite the fact there are now some successful venture companies and lots of projects  in that space that we now call the maker community. From Formlabs’ perspective, the promise of routine 3D printing that can help you realize projects in 3D form has yet to be fulfilled. What we’ve discovered is that on the price-point  side and usability side, users of this technology—which we like to call prosumers, who are people like you and me who have dabbled in design or design and engineering—in  their line of work, they need certain things from this as a tool for them to adopt it. The Formlabs rollercoaster so far has proven, and I believe will continue to prove, that people want the ability to take  a design on a computer  and just turn it into an object, and then just do it again. The key use case there is classic rapid prototyping and product design of use cases, but there’s lots more—from architects to jewelry makers, to educators to a lot of other niches, more vertical  areas, such as medical  usage, and so on and so forth. To achieve that, we had to think about 3D printing from the point of view of 3D printing users.In a way, the Form 1 is the first 3D printer that has been designed by users of 3D printing, not by makers and not by the engineers who invented the field. That is a fundamental  difference  and approach.  That is what I believe puts Formlabs in a very different, unique position to become a serious force in this emerging market. We’ve just started, right? We’re coming out of the gate with this product, and we still have a lot more work ahead of us.

Osborn: Tell me, from a technology  standpoint,  what makes the Form  1 different from the popular, more common  ones using a filament-deposition method? I have an Afinia4 printer in my garage printing some things for my Shapeoko5  right now. What makes it different from that? What do you see as a key differentiator  in the future?

Linder: So the Form 1 is a stereolithography  machine. Stereolithography is a thirty-year-old technology or so, and it’s been around. It’s is the gold standard of 3D printing in terms of quality.

It’s basically a laser that draws  layers a pool of liquid  plastic, a photopolymer resin. Wherever the light hits the resin, it solidifies. Then you repeat this process layer by layer. This way you’re getting a solid object at the end of the process. And we’ve managed to do that using inexpensive laser components and control systems packaged in a very usable, appealing design that people find very slick, modern, aesthetic and most of all easy to use. From our point of view, we tried to generate  a tool. The Form 1 has an enclo- sure that allows you to see the object you’re forming from every angle. That’s not a coincidence.  That’s design. The Form 1 has a single button  to operate it. It’s not coincidence.  It’s design. Design is how it works. And the way it works is that it lowers the complexity that comes with 3D printing,  because 3D printing  is not as simple as printing,  which  you don’t even think about right now when you hit Print on your computer.

Osborn: It’s not today, but at some point, I could see my grandkids taking for granted that they just push a button and a new toy pops out.

Linder: I agree with you, absolutely. But again, remember I said that we are thinking about this technology differently. Part of that is how we think about the end-user experience. Nobody is doing well enough yet at what we call one-click print. You don’t have that experience. So you have to set up a print, you have to generate the supports  and make sure it makes sense, and then you print. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. This is even with very expensive machines that are mature products. So we’re trying to address that from a different  perspective. We’re also trying to address the postprocessing part of the 3D printing process. So we provide this finishing kit and work through the process. We try to celebrate it. Many people were making molds before the day and age of injection molding, right? They were artists and that’s what they were making. And they had a whole set of tools for that. We’re trying to celebrate postprocessing, in fact. Of course, there are two additional  aspects. One is software. Good software provides you with the interfaces to get what you need done. So you can think about our software as a very advanced print dialog. The other is the materials that allow you to generate the actual object and the properties of the mate- rials used in printing. The combination of all these together is what makes Formlabs and the product, the Form 1 unique.

Osborn: Can you tell me a little bit about the 3D printing landscape and some of the interesting  things you’ve seen people doing with 3D printers? What are people using these for now? What are some unusual examples of how people are using 3D printers?

Linder: So people have been using 3D printing from the point they were avail- able to do product design and rapid prototyping. That’s the key use case. You also see companies like Invisalign that have a whole  process of creating a dental solution  based on 3D printing. You see companies like Nervous Systems6  that have jewelry lines. You see service bureaus like Shapeways making 3D printing available and different  types of processes to basically print whatever. Then there’s the long tail. A lot of people have little uses for 3D printing, but there’s this big bright future where people talk about 3D printing as a replace- ment for manufacturing. There are companies doing that as well, and those processes are still very expensive, but they’re making commercial  parts for airplanes with 3D printers. More and more car manufacturers are considering adding 3D printing to action-manufacturing processes. While I personally think that’s indeed going to happen in the future, I think we’re still quite far from the high-end, from that experience where you have just machines, that are part of a manufacturing process. But at the other front, the home front or the personal front, I think 3D printing is going to potentially change how we consume things and how we design things for our own— customize them. The IP of an object is not just what comes from the factory and what the manufacturer/designer decided that we should have, but it’s people who are versed with the Internet that are capable of some design. Maybe they’re not professional designers. Not everyone is a web designer today, but almost any- one can put together  a web site. So we can see that happening.

On the other hand, the difference is that not everyone wants to design physi- cal things. That’s also true, just like not everyone wants to build a web site. Even though the technology exists, if you really think about it, there are more people who don’t design web sites than people who do. So it’s really hard to say what would  be the killer app of 3D printing—and I don’t pretend to know. People ask us this a lot. Honestly, we think the more interesting thing is taking the existing use cases—and maybe that makes us different  in the landscape— and making them available to designers and engineers everywhere.

Osborn: It seems like, as you said, designers and architects  and have been using this technology forever.

Linder: But just a really small number. It’s just starting to become affordable and widely available with products like the Form 1.

Osborn: For  me as  a  hacker, what is interesting  is that this technology’s really available to me. Before, there was no way I was going to buy a $20,000 machine and I probably didn’t even have access locally to one. I might be able to use Shapeways, but even Shapeways is expensive.There’s  a project called OpenRC, where you can download  basically a whole RC car. So if that’s your hobby, you can build and design new RC cars and print new parts.

I’ve also seen a tile-based  board  game. A couple guys came up with the idea, but now there are half a dozen designers who have made their own tiles and their own figures and added to the game.There’s  also a cool project that basically takes the Erector  set, and LEGOs, and Tinkertoys  and makes pieces that allow you to bridge those. It allows you to use Erector set with LEGO because it has some pieces that are made to connect with both. It is just guys like me, hacking in their spare time in their garage.

Linder: Those are what I call the “long tail,” and I think we’re people like that, so we’re biased. I see these kinds of things in the lab every  day, and I think they’re great, but they’re still a small number  of people.What I was trying to tell you before is that there are about thirty thousand 3D printers in the world right now and about ten million people who can use CAD professionally. So when you think about those numbers, you’re saying, “Whoa. What if a million people who use CAD print?” That’s pretty phenom- enal when you think about it. We’re thinking of a professional  tool, and you mentioned the price. I think you’re right. That is  part of being  accessible  to bigger  audiences. This is discretionary  spending, right? You don’t need to explain to your boss why you’re buying  a new Mac. It’s obvious—you  just need it. But if 3D printing  is $20,000 or $50,000 to get what you need, that’s going to be a bunch of work just to get it through. So guess what? You’re not getting a printer. And if you’re getting  a printer, it’s probably going to end up sitting in a workshop.  It’s not going to be available to you. You need to go through someone who runs the machine for you. So you don’t get to use it with your own hands. I think although  those  amazing use cases you described would jump out as soon  as you put it in their hands. I think there are just so many things that people will do. All those cool projects that you described, we see all of them. We see all kinds of people making all types of things. People even make sex toys with them.