Part 2 of our interview with Formlabs EU Lead Michael Sorkin, coinciding with the launch of the Form 2 at Euromold 2015.
In part 1 of our interview with the EU Lead for Formlabs, Michael Sorkin talked us through the new features of the Form 2 3D printer. In this instalment, he discusses the landscape of the 3D printing industry, and the place of Formlabs within it.
Q: What are your thoughts about the current landscape of 3D printing and SLA printing in particular? We’ve noticed a lot of Kickstarter campaigns for SLA printers, like the MoonRay and the Morpheus. And, of course, Formlabs itself got its start on Kickstarter.
Good question. Well, you have to look at the history behind when Formlabs started. It was founded in Boston by MIT students and graduates. And the SLA market was very expensive back then. It was reserved for industry markets or dentists or medical research, etcetera, and the price entry was about $30K to $40K.
Back then, Formlabs were looking for an affordable solution where we could also deliver a quality experience to the customer, not just from the product side, but also from the service and technical support side. We introduced one machine which was plug-and-play. It was Form 1. It was already a solid solution for the market and the target groups we had, which delivered and still delivers remarkable quality.
And the other manufacturers, other competitors, or let’s say other players in this market, of course, are rising. But our focus is more in the customer experience itself and will always be there. So we’re not here to quibble on price. We’re more into looking at having the best price ratio and the back-end support − from Formlabs itself, but also from the partners we’re working with.
So we don’t go immediately to new markets and sell as many things as we can. No, we really take care that the product is finished before it goes to the market, that we have the right partners in the right countries, which are able to serve the markets, able to provide support, and serve the customers. Not having 100 per cent finished models, or software, or any weak link at all leads to a bad customer experience, and bad customer experience leads to a bad reputation for the whole industry, not just for the brand.
Q: So you have the infrastructure and technical support, customer support that other companies don’t have?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of people tend to forget about that, but customers who want to buy 3D printers, especially schools and universities, they really want to have someone they can talk to if they have some difficulties on the product side or on the sales side. Someone who can support them immediately.
So we also have a pro plan. It’s an optional service where a buyer or a user can have a one-to-one, 30 minutes of introduction to the machine, plus online support and telephone support. So you can always call and have someone on the other line, who will help you immediately, so you can still produce and print at the speed you want.
Q: Any plans to develop, say, educational resources? MakerBot, for example, has a big coursebook of teaching resources.
Well, this is definitely something we are working on right now. We are looking into the vertical markets and potential applications which are not being addressed by anyone else in the industry. We’re looking for partnerships, not only from a distributor/reseller side, but collaborations for example with schools or dental labs, where we can work together to develop a procedure which enables the whole industry to use our products better and to have a better customer experience.
Q: Formlabs and MakerBot were both featured in the Netflix documentary, “Print the Legend”, and both companies have come a long way since then. What do you think’s changed since then?
A lot has changed since then. Over the last couple of years 3D printing went through something that we can call a hype cycle: everybody was making a 3D printer, everybody was printing cars or houses. But people started to realize something was missing: reliability. And this is really where the Form 2 comes into place: we believe we are now entering the next wave of desktop 3D printing, where reliability is a main feature for users. And with that in mind, we have built the Form 2.
Even in Berlin, we have a very international team. We have some from France, from Italy, from US, from Russia, and working on more than just the product. Formlabs sees the industry a bit differently than other manufacturers. The company really takes care about the product, but we also think about the customers. We’re first thinking about the customers — where, who, what they need, which kind of service, which kind of product, which kind of materials, and which kind of partners (if we cannot deliver them directly).
And then we’re looking into the development. Formlabs started with 3 founders and today we are more than 110 people across Berlin and Boston. And they’re really ambitious, and they’re really passionate about the company, about the development, about the possibilities they have in the company.
So one thing is, of course, the product, but the other thing is the company itself, the feelings inside, the way of communication, the way of treating each other and treating the customer and treating the market.
And we are not being cannibalized, refocused by any sales numbers like, “Okay, we have to sell more.” We really take care that the product is finished, that the experience is very good for us. We do a lot of beta testing. We have partnerships with fablabs. So we have really a broad network. We call it even a family where we talk to each other, get feedback, implement it in the product or in the solution, and then introduce it to the market.
Q: So you’re optimistic and excited?
Yes, definitely. We have a lot of things to do, to learn also, but we have a very, very interesting market. We have found very interesting partners, and we’re always seeking new ones. And by having such an awesome team, there are no difficulties. There are no problems. There are only challenges. And by having the right focus… I’m very optimistic actually.
Q: What’s your take on services like 3D Hubs, the model of distributed 3D printing where you don’t need to own a printer?
Perfect. From our side, accessibility of a 3D printer, the more people in front of the machine, with a 3D printer in general − it doesn’t have to be an SLA machine from Formlabs. We actually don’t care. So, if more people are being more educated in that sector, it’s very warmly welcomed.
And 3D Hubs is doing a great job. We’re in contact with them for statistics and client base and providing them some support. But there’s nothing bad about it, even compared to the reseller side. There are so many things to discover, so many markets, so many niches. So I think we are just at the beginning of something very big, and this is another way of reaching those target groups.
Q: It’s interesting with 3D Hubs because you guys are often ranked highly in their user surveys, so it’s a good relationship there. Next question is, what’s the most useful thing that you’ve ever 3D printed?
Myself? Well, it’s very easy. It’s actually how I got into 3D printing. My wife had a sewing machine, and the spindle where the thread goes into the machine, it broke. At that time, I didn’t have a 3D printer. I had no ideas about 3D printing at all. I’d heard about it. I thought it was very expensive, but that’s it.
She said, “Okay, I broke my machine, and I have to buy a new one because this spare part is not available to buy.” Because the machine was very old, you see.
And then I thought about using a 3D printing service. “Okay. Probably I can outsource it and ask an engineer to design this part.” But it was very expensive, and it wasn’t worth it. It was even… having a new sewing machine would be much less expensive than designing this part which was broke.
So I downloaded SketchUp, and I bought an FDM 3D printer, a real monster that had to wired in directly to the computer. I tried a couple of times to play around with it and print with it. It failed quite a lot. The reliability and the durability wasn’t quite there. Then I printed again. The piece was starting to fit, but it was still too thick. I was a complete newbie!
And after, I think, let’s say, four hours − because it was a small part − I printed one which was perfectly fitting, and then I was feeling very good. I even improved the design, so now you can put two spindles on it like cartridges.
So, in my opinion, that was a perfect example of why we need more education, why we need more references, blogs, newspapers, conversation, not only about weapons and bioprinting, which is important, of course, but we need really practical things. And at Formlabs, we’re about practical. We’re not about only toys and ideas about what might be in the future. We’re about the day-to-day, real life, what’s happening today.
And the sewing machine was a perfect case. There was something missing. In four hours, I learned the Sketchup software, which is super easy. I printed the part. It wasn’t working. I printed it again. It might have cost me 3 euro in total. The machine was working. My wife was happy. I was happy. And I fell in love with 3D printing.
Q: Fantastic. That’s the kind of story we like to hear. We want to tell our readers about everyday 3D printing applications that are really useful.
Definitely. At Formlabs we are always inspired by our users’ designs and projects. We have a special design team, of course, which is constantly working, but really we all sit together. We have a party or a dinner and really discuss, okay, what’s it all about? What’s our heart? What’s our vision? What do we think we would need ourselves − because we have engineers; we have designers; we have people from Harvard University, MBA degrees. So, really, all these kinds of mindsets come together. And then we start developing and looking into solutions.
Q: And what about the model repositories operated by printer manufactuers? Ultimaker has YouMagine, MakerBot has Thingiverse. Any plans for Formlabs to follow suit with their own kind of model repository?
Well, we are already so versatile in terms of our target groups. By trying to fulfil something which is already being addressed by those platforms you mentioned, they are already delivering thousands and thousands of files, I don’t think it’s the right approach.
We have a solution which is able to realise your ideas and your creativity. Most of our customers are actually engineers, designers, artists and create their own designs, they don’t use already existing files. This is why our 3D printers work in Windows, Mac, Linux, with all different platforms, so that people can really jump into 3D printing without thinking about 3D printing, and have an object in their hand at the end. This is the goal.
And this is why saying the improvements we’ve made in the Form 2 are not about, okay, we have a newer 3D printer. It’s more like a much better 3D printing experience and a much faster 3D printing experience, from idea to the real object.
And you will hear it a lot of times by asking, what is a Form 2? For us, it’s the most advanced 3D printer ever created because of all the engineering work and the research which went into it, all in-house developments. We don’t just buy parts from outside. We really engineer them and manufacture all by ourselves. So it’s a really special machine, I would say, which was made with love at Formlabs, and we’re excited to release it today.
That’s the end of part 2. Click here to read yesterday’s installment of our Euromold interview with Michael Sorkin, Formlabs EU Lead.
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