How 3-D Printing Startups Are Shaping the Future
"10-22-38 Astoria" -- that was the message written on the first photocopied page, which was produced in 1938. In the 50 years that followed, Xerox was born, a trillion-dollar industry developed around document duplication, every business got a copier (if not two) and home printers became able to reproduce pages.
But today, with 3-D printing, we can print a lot more than just words and images. With the emergent technology, any desktop computer can output objects as simple as a ball and as intricate as a human bone. Printing in a variety of materials, from bendable nylon filaments to strong thermoplastics, these devices have gone from invention to adoption twice as fast as the photocopy machine. And this 3-D printing revolution signals big changes for small businesses, allowing them to keep development costs low, innovation churning and a new way to keep their secret prototypes in-house and safe from copycats.
Meanwhile, the 3-D printing industry is also developing fast, with industry giants like Stratasys aquiring upstarts like Makerbot for $408 million. But innovative outfits are forming all the time.
Here, we take a look at three other startups that are carving out their own niches at the forefront of 3-D printing. To get started, just click the "Next" link below.
A startup called Formlabs
A desktop-sized 3-D printer with professional-level output that doesn't break the bank.
While desktop 3-D printers like the Makerbot Replicator have made plenty of headlines over the last two years, the technology is still evolving and the printers leave something to be desired. There's still a large gap in the kind of quality that larger, floor-sitting printers output and what desktop-perched models make.
Cambridge, Mass.-based Formlabs has a head start, with a high-quality, low cost 3-D printer aimed at putting professional quality right on the desktop. Founded in 2009 by three MIT students frustrated by the prototyping options they found outside their space in the MIT Media Lab, the company raised $2.94 million last October in a Kickstarter campaign for its first product, the Form 1 Printer. They began shipping the product this May. Having filled all their crowd funding orders, the device is available to the public for $3,299.
The Form 1 uses lasers to trace out shapes in special resin engineered by Formlabs, a 3-D printing technique known as "stereo lithography." The machine can form layers as thin as 25 microns, which is thinner than most human hairs, and has a total a build volume of 4.9 by 4.9 by 6.5 inches.
But the company makes more than just hardware. The printer comes with PreForm, a software that streamlines the 3-D printing process and is compatible with any computer aided design (CAD) file, and a finishing kit that helps refines output objects.
"We believe in the now, and are making tools for people who need them, but have no access to them right now," says Natan Linder, a Formlabs co-founder. Linder estimates there are around 10 million professional 3-D CAD users. "If you look at the numbers, it's a pretty clear way to think about the market opportunity for us."
Shapeways, a 3-D printing marketplace
A 3-D printing marketplace where anyone can buy, make or sell their own products.
From iPhone docks to jewelry, 3-D printable products are growing in popularity among designers. But the machinery's high costs and ever-improving nature make it difficult to keep up with the technology.
For example, new materials are being developed all the time for fused deposition modeling, a 3-D printing technique where objects are formed by pushing heated materials through a tube, similar to an inkjet. Innovations also abound in selective laser sintering and stereo lithography, both of which operate much like a laser printer, with high-powered beams of light carving and hardening shapes from a bed of resin.
Both a manufacturer and a retailer, New York City-based Shapeways gives consumers and designers access to scores of printers and materials -- and more as they come to market. Launched in 2008 at the Royal Philips Electronics lifestyle incubator in Eindhovern, the Netherlands, the company has two factories where it produces products on demand, shipping them to customers worldwide.
A marketplace similar to Etsy where independent designers can sell their wares, the company's website has more than 6 billion product variations. "It's a new model, both of manufacturing, because it's 3-D printing, but also of e-commerce, in that everything is made on demand," says Shapeways director of marketing Carine Carmy.
Additionally, users can upload their files to Shapeways to have them printed and delivered like a prototyping service bureau. "The small business or independent designer who is typically designing those products has a much lower barrier to entry than they would if they were going through traditional manufacturing," says Carmy.
Because it costs the same to 3-D print 1,000 of the same product as it does 1,000 of different products of the same size and material, the new manufacturing technique eliminates economies of scale. Previous fabrication methods created objects through molds and could have more than $10,000 in setup costs, an investment that only pays out if many duplicates were created. As a result, prototypes that were once pricey are now available and considerably more affordable.
3DLT, providing access to printable goods
A service that lets consumers buy 3-D printable files from designers and output them through a network of producers.
In an increasingly digital world, CDs have turned into MP3s, DVDs have become digital downloads, and now objects are available as files. And just like the music and videos needed for online marketplaces to thrive, Cincinnati-based 3DLT is building a marketplace where consumers can purchase files from designers to get access to printable goods.
The company was in stealth mode until officially launching in April 2013 at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York City. "We connect those designers, consumers and producers together via an online marketplace, and allow them to produce as efficiently and close to the point of need as possible," says John Hauer, a 3DLT co-founder and the company's chief marketing officer.
To date, the company has a partner network with more than 500 3-D printers worldwide, offering a wide selection of materials for users to output in. The company has a partnership with Makexyz, a service that locates local 3-D printers in a user's area, and as it continues to recruit top 3-D printers, it pitches a service that allows owners to monetize their output devices.
But fundamentally, 3DLT is a content company, Hauer says. As of May 1, the company began curating a catalog of designs, which totaled more than 450 3-D objects. "As the 3-D ecosystem builds out at home and at retail and online, and capacity continues to grow, the need for content will continue to grow with it," he says. "And we'll be there to supply it."
Based in Portland, Ore., John Patrick Pullen covers travel, business and tech for Men's Journal, Fortune and others.