Formlabs Lead Engineer Discusses Development of the Fuse 1 SLS 3D Printer

by Tyler KoslowOctober 10, 2017

Formlabs Lead Engineer Eduardo Torrealba talks about the development of the new Fuse 1 SLS 3D printer and what makes it so unique.

Over the past few years, the 3D printer manufacturer Formlabs has worked to seize the desktop stereolithography (SLA) market, serving both hobbyists and professionals with the sleek and powerful Form 2 3D printer–as well as the Form 1+ and Form 1 before it.

Then, back in June, the Massachusetts startup suddenly announced that they would be expanding their reach towards selective laser sintering technology. Traditionally reserved for professional clients and industrial-sized wallets, Formlabs has plotted to shakeup the SLS 3D printing market with the Fuse 1.

The new SLS 3D printer is compact; essentially designed for the benchtop. Although it lacks in size compared to the SLS market norm, Formlabs’ latest hardware offers professional-grade printing performance while costing up to 20 times less than other comparable machines.

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During the TCT Show in Birmingham, we paid a visit to the Formlabs exhibition booth to speak with Formlabs Lead Engineer Eduardo Torrealba, one of the minds behind the new Fuse 1 3D printer. After taking a look at some impressive prints from the new machine, we discussed the development process and design of the Fuse 1, the features that set it apart from other SLS 3D printers, and more.

The Fuse 1 SLS 3D printer

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you started working for Formlabs?

I grew up in Texas, and I went to college at Baylor University for a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. After that, I studied mechanical engineering again for a master’s degree at the University of Illinois. While I was there, I started a small internet-of-things consumer startup and made a device called PlantLink. PlantLink was an internet-connected soil moisture sensor for gardeners. That company was acquired by Scotts Miracle-Gro, and they’re going to turn it into their Connected Yard platform in 2018.

At the end of my time with that company, I joined Formlabs. I connected with Max , the CEO, and he showed me an early experiment for a SLS printer. They hadn’t built the printer yet; they were just looking at some different powders and lasers.

I joined in November of 2014 and worked with another engineer to build the first prototype of the system, and we’ve been working on it ever since. It’s been almost three years now, and we have nearly 35 people working on the Fuse 1 at this point, so it’s come a long way.

What challenges did you come across while developing the Fuse 1?

There’s certainly a variety of things that we think about. I’d say one of the main challenges is reducing the cost and the complexity from what exists commercially. SLS printers have not changed substantially in the past 30 years, since being introduced. They’ve gotten larger, they’ve gotten a little bit more capable, and they use new materials, but overall, they’re still a couple of refrigerator-sized machines with inert gas environments, CO­2 lasers, and all these things.

So, we came in and reevaluated the entire process from first principles, went back to Carl Deckard’s original PhD thesis, looked at lots of papers that have been published, and tried to understand what it actually takes to sinter two particles of plastic together. So, we built a very minimal prototype to test our theories, and we’ve just iterated since then to improve reliability and lower the cost of producing the machines. At this point, with the Fuse 1, we’re pretty confident that we’ve hit the right mix for those things.

Display of Fuse 1 prints at TCT Show

Would you say that your system can do everything that the big machines can do? What separates the Fuse 1 from other SLS printers?

Well, our system can do the same materials, offering the same material properties and the same level of detail for the parts. We have a smaller build volume, so that’s certainly a difference, and we also have to do dark materials for now, and that is a limitation on color. So, if you wanted to do brightly colored parts that you dye afterwards or pristine white parts, the Fuse 1 can’t do that right now, but I think the tradeoffs are worth it for the quality of the parts that you get at the price point.

It’s the same Nylon 12 that you would print on any industrial SLS printer. It’s just been colored black through one of our material development partners that we’re working with in order to work with the wavelength of the laser.

Fuse 1 prints at TCT Show

I’m also curious – a big thing with the Form 1 and 2 was the design, the simplicity of having the one button. Does that same design theory come into play with the Fuse 1 as well?

Yeah, we have the same industrial design team that worked on the Form 1 and Form 2 working on the Fuse 1, so it’s a constant thread throughout all of our products. Our goal is to increase the accessibility of 3D printing. The main thing we’ve done as a company is take SLA printing from the workshop and put it on the desktop, and now we’re trying to take SLS printing from a dedicated room and put it in your workshop, and we think that simplicity is required all the way through.

A key part of simplicity is actually reliability; it doesn’t matter if the machine is easy to start if it fails every time you start it, or if it fails half the time you start it. You need it to deliver parts. So, that’s the thing that we’re really focused on right now, is making sure that you will get the same reliability from the Fuse 1 that you expect from the Form 2.

The Fuse 1 comes with just one material at the moment, correct?

That’s right. We’re currently launching with Nylon 12. Right now, roughly 90 to 95 percent of all parts printed with SLS are printed with Nylon 12, so we’re trying to match that level of material performance, and then the goal is to expand our materials portfolio, the same way we’ve done it with stereolithography.

In the past four to five years, we’ve rolled out resins that are on par or better than corresponding resins from traditional SLA printing, and with SLS printing, our goal is to do the same thing with other materials. We’re already talking about Nylon 11 as a follow-up material, and then we’re evaluating a wide range of materials to introduce into the product line.

What is the target market that you’re aiming for with the Fuse 1? Do you see yourself broadening your customer range?

You might be surprised to learn that we already have a very broadly scoped business. The vast majority of our users are professionals that are using the Form 2 in some capacity as part of their job. Dentists are making in-use parts, lots of Fortune 500 business are printing parts for prototyping – we have printers all over the world in the hands of professional users, and I think the Fuse 1 is no different.

It’ll probably be a subset of those users because while the Form 2 can be used by an individual person in a consulting shop that just needs to buy something to augment their business, the Fuse 1 is more targeted at a small- to medium- to large-sized business.

You probably would be purchasing the Fuse 1 as part of a larger prototyping facility, whereas the Form 2 could be your first 3D printer. So, I think that’s the main difference that we see, but within that, there are already people who are reserving the product, from medical product development to education. Tons of different industries are showing interest in the Fuse 1.

What was the development process behind the Form Wash and Form Cure? Was it something that you’ve wanted since the Form 1, or did you suddenly say, “We need a washer and a curer”?

In general, it’s something that we’ve known we wanted to create for a long time. I think we’ve said on our website that it completes the Form 2 print ecosystem, and I think that’s very true. Once you have automated washing and curing, it really simplifies the process even further and further reduces the barrier of entry for new customers, or allows existing customers to have higher throughput.

So, we’ve seen a lot of interest in that system from people who have multiple Form 2s. It’s great if you just have one, but if you have more than one machine, it’s especially interesting because you can keep your parts constantly moving, and you don’t have to worry about accidentally warping something, or overcuring, or whatever might happen in former manual versions of those systems. So, I think it nicely rounds out the existing ecosystem.

The Form Wash and Form Cure

The price of the Fuse 1 starts at $10,000, while the full package costs $19,999, and includes post-processing station, an extra build piston for continuous usage, and initial material load. Formlabs plans to start shipping this printer sometime around mid-2018.

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