Somerville, Massachusetts-based Formlabs, a 3D printing technology developer and manufacturer, opened a new regional headquarters in Milwaukee’s Third Ward last month.
The Milwaukee office, located at 220 E. Buffalo St., will add more than 100 jobs over the next three years and will play a key part in Formlabs’ efforts to address President Joe Biden’s Additive Manufacturing Forward initiative, which seeks to increase the use of additive manufacturing to improve supply chain resilience.
While 3D printing is not new, the idea that it should be implemented on a wide scale as a complimentary technology to standard manufacturing processes is, said Brian Nies, head of Americas sales and Milwaukee office lead at Formlabs. Additive manufacturing can provide flexibility in how a part is designed, shorten lead times for certain parts and allow companies to increase the number of products they offer.
“Additive manufacturing as a whole and 3D printing really got a major boost with the pandemic because … when certain things weren’t able to be obtained anymore because of supply chain shortages, or if we needed to shift to make a different product because it was in high demand, people who didn’t have flexibility in their manufacturing process were at a disadvantage,” Nies said.
Formlabs offers its customers two primary 3D printing technologies: stereolithography (SLA) and a selective laser sintering (SLS) model. SLA models work well with several materials, providing users flexibility, while SLS models are targeted toward production-ready parts. A Formlabs setup can range from $5,000 to $50,000.
“The advantage with the size and the price point of what we offer is it isn’t restricted to only the biggest customers or biggest players. We see a lot of places bring in one or two (printers), like tool and die places, just to do jigs and fixtures. That just gives them another capability they didn’t have before,” Nies said.
As far as what kinds of manufacturers are using Formlabs’ printers, Nies said it’s “pretty broad across the spectrum” and both larger and smaller companies are moving into the space. Formlabs has seen success in the medical and dental industries and with manufacturers working with plastics.
It comes down to risk versus reward when looking at adopting 3D printing technology and while the benefits are numerous – supply chain flexibility, possible savings in production and added independence – there are still several pitfalls.
Matthew Pearlson, founder of Wales-based PrintFoam, said while additive manufacturing is already being successfully used for rapid prototyping and tooling, the industry is still several years out from 3D printing being used to make the “endgame” parts.
“The people who run big companies have been running those companies the same way for a long time, and they’re typically risk adverse. Getting that step to the factory floor takes a super long time. So, what does that mean for additive technology? It means you have to wait a while,” Pearlson said.
There are few additive technologies that are currently able to solve the problems manufacturers are looking to address. Materials issues are a common example – there isn’t yet a material that would allow a company to 3D print a product comparable to an athletic shoe or to replace a zinc part. Pearlson believes materials and throughput are the two main factors holding back the widespread adoption of 3D printing.
“There are very few products today that were designed from the ground up to be made in an additive way,” Pearlson said. “If you try to take a product or a part that is not designed for additive and make it in an additive process … you can physically do it, but economically it’s not going to make sense.”
Another factor holding back adoption of additive manufacturing is simply a lack of education in the area. Formlabs wants to address this issue through exposure to its products and community engagement.
“By having (the new office) in this great, centrally located place (near) downtown Milwaukee, it becomes much more accessible to people,” Nies said. “We want people to come to the office and try them out.”
The fact that there is an increasing number of younger engineers who are entering positions of leadership on manufacturing floors will also help the cause, as younger generations likely grew up having 3D printers in their labs and classrooms.
Constant investments in technology
For Hartland-based Fathom Manufacturing, one of the country’s earliest adopters of additive manufacturing for metals and plastics, increased use of 3D printing means continued investment in new technologies.
The company’s Hartland headquarters has nearly 100 industrial 3D printers. Fathom has continued to make investments in new technology to address the manufacturing industry’s move to “Industry 4.0.” This new technology will also help manufacturers shift from primarily using additive manufacturing as a prototyping tool to using the technology as an actual means of production.
“We’ve definitely seen from our customer base – not only here in Wisconsin, but also on a national level – a transition as the technology continues to mature and the material properties continue to mature,” said Ryan Martin, chief executive officer of Fathom Digital Manufacturing Corp.
Last year, Fathom invested over $1 million into a piece of 3D printing equipment used for metals. The equipment allows the company to make hundreds of aluminum components for customers. Fathom has also partnered with Minneapolis-based Evolve Additive Solutions, which has created a new 3D printing technology, called STEP. The technology is almost like a photographic drum that allows users to create layers of material quicky. Evolve says its technology gives manufacturers the ability to reduce forecast estimates from one year to 90 days.
“You can make customizable parts – thousands of them – with real material properties that are similar to injection molding at price points that make sense in the thousands,” Martin said.
He emphasized the fact that 3D printing technology is not meant to overtake standard processes like CNC machining or injection molding. It should instead be used to drive efficiency in a way that is complimentary to those more traditional processes. Not every product should or can be 3D printed.
“I think you’re always going to see different applications where it makes sense. The number of applications where it does make sense is going to continue to grow exponentially,” Martin said.
He believes there will be more use cases for additive manufacturing and more widespread adoption in the next three to five years.
“If you’re not embracing some of these new manufacturing processes, you run the risk of being left behind,” Martin said. “It’s going to impact your competitiveness in the market.”
Pearlson echoed that sentiment, saying companies need to realize the way things are made is changing and they need to start adjusting. He said PrintFoam has been “going gangbusters” and is adding new clients in the industrial sector who are looking to address energy and climate issues.
“I don’t know if COVID-19 accelerated things, I don’t know if President Biden’s program is accelerating things, but my phone has been ringing more and more every week as people realize they can’t keep doing business as usual for the next 50 years,” Pearlson said.