These Boston 3D Printing Companies Are Stepping Into Manufacturing

This bike on display at Markforged's booth was made with 3D printed parts. Photo by Amy Pollard / BU News Service

By Amy Pollard
BU News Service

LAS VEGAS — From earbuds to robotic arms, 3D printing is shaking up the manufacturing space. Boston area 3D printing companies Formlabs and Markforged brought their latest innovations to CES 2018.

“The 3D printing section of CES has actually grown pretty significantly over the years,” said Sean Lorenz, Formlabs’ product marketing lead. “I think there’s just a larger understanding of the impact that 3D printing is having on creating consumer products.”

3D printing isn’t just about prototyping anymore. The printers are becoming the means of production, whether for jigs and grippers for factory equipment or toothbrushes and bikes.

The 3D printing industry is worth more than $6 billion according to consulting firm Wohlers. Companies like Stratasys, 3D Systems and EOS take the largest chunk of the market—about 70 percent—but startups like Formlabs and Markforged have eked out spaces of their own by developing new technologies.

“We’re starting to do things that you couldn’t previously 3D print,” said Jon Reilly, Markforged’s vice president of products. “We print the full range of materials for strong parts but other 3D printing technologies are starting to push the envelope more and more into real world applications.”

Markforged declined to name its customers, but chief revenue officer Jason Eubanks said they work with some of the world’s largest manufacturing operations, including eight of the top ten tech companies, 74 percent of aeronautics companies and all three branches of the U.S. military.

Formlabs is also foraying into manufacturing. Last summer, it announced a partnership with New Balance to 3D print footwear. Formlabs declined to comment on when production would begin this year.

Besides bringing change to the factory floor, 3D printing companies want to create products for consumers.

Markforged’s CES booth featured an extreme mountain bike made of parts 3D printed with carbon fiber. The bike was custom-made for a cyclist with disabilities.

Meanwhile, Formlabs showed off a pair of 3D printed earbuds created with digital scans from Danish manufacturer 3Shape.

Not everything needs to be 3D printed, of course. It’s mainly useful for parts that need to be customized.

“I think there’s been a lot of hype about how 3D printing could be used,” said Sarah Wheble, Formlabs’ PR manager. “I think early on in the industry they said ‘3D printing your plates.’ That isn’t really realistic and where we fit in a manufacturing environment.”

3D printing companies often claim they’re reducing barriers to innovation for inventors, but the printers aren’t cheap. Both Markforged and Formlabs sell desktop printers for around $3,499.

The 3D printing industry hit a speedbump in 2016 amid falling revenues from the largest manufacturers, 3D Systems and Stratasys. But 3D printing companies expect future growth. Additionally, industry sales rose 25 percent when those two companies were excluded from the data.

“I don’t know about slowing [in the industry],” says Markforged’s Reilly. “We’ve certainly seen incredibly fast growth over the past year. Innovating is the key.”

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