While many industries have been on hold during COVID-19 pandemic, additive manufacturing has been getting red hot—proving its value as it helped provide critical personal protective equipment (PPE) and allowed strained supply chains to flex without breaking. Now, Formlabs, known for its Form line of desktop stereolithography (SLA) printers, is looking to play a bigger role as it today announced the availability of its Fuse 1 benchtop industrial selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printer. Under development for nearly seven years, the Fuse 1 marks a notable change for Formlabs as they expand into a new additive manufacturing process.
To support the new printer and provide users with an end-to-end SLS workflow, the company also launched the Fuse Sift, a post-processing system for the Fuse 1, and Nylon 12 Powder. Nylon 12 is the first powder material for the Fuse 1, but Formlabs noted Nylon 11 will be coming soon, while a flexible TPU and other materials are in development.
SLS has long been trusted for its ability to print strong, functional parts, however its high cost and complex workflow have limited the size of companies able to benefit from it. Formlabs improves on SLS with the Fuse 1 and Fuse Sift, bringing it within reach for all companies through affordability and ease of use.
“The Form 1 redefined stereolithography (SLA) printing for the additive manufacturing industry 10 years ago, and now the Fuse 1 is bringing the same reliability and accessibility standard that Formlabs customers expect of industrial 3D printing,” said Max Lobovsky, CEO and co-founder of Formlabs. “SLS 3D printing shouldn’t be solely for those with big budgets, it needs to be accessible so all companies—from startup to big manufacturer—can benefit from the design freedom and high productivity SLS 3D printing provides.”
The Nitty Gritty
With a machine size of 25.4 x 27 x 42" (64.5 x 68.5 x 107 cm), Fuse 1 provides users with a 6.5 x 6.5 x 11.8" (16.5 x 16.5 x 30 cm) build volume and uses a modular build chamber that is compatible with the Fuse 1 and Fuse Sift. The Ytterbium Fiber 10W laser provides a laser spot size (FWHM) of 200 μm (0.0079") and is capable of producing a layer thickness of 110 μm (0.004"). Formlabs says the Fuse 1’s cooldown times allow users to utilize a second removable build chamber and start printing 1–2 hours after the previous print has finished.
Formlabs bills its Fuse Sift as an all-in-one powder recovery station, combining part extraction, powder recovery, storage, and mixing in a single device. At just 39 x 24 x 61.8" (1.0 x 0.6 x 1.9 m), Fuse Sift will dispense and mix used and new powder automatically to reduce waste and control the user’s powder supply. A negative air pressure system keeps powder inside while enabling open access and easy cleanup.
Users can reduce downtime thanks to the modular build chamber, allowing them to transfer build chambers and powder cartridges between the Fuse 1 and Fuse Sift for a nonstop, cyclical workflow, according to the company. Formlabs includes a set of finishing tools with the Fuse Sift to help users clean excess powder from parts with ease, including a large brush, two small brushes, pipe cleaners, dental picks, a vacuum brush tool and a vacuum crevice tool.
The company states its Nylon 12 provides high tensile strength, ductility, and environmental stability, making it suitable for creating complex assemblies and durable parts with minimal water absorption.
According to Formlabs, their Nylon 12 powder offers an ultimate tensile strength of 50 MPa with a tensile modulus of 1,850 MPa. Elongation at break is rated at 11 percent on the X/Y axis and six percent on the Z axis. Nylon 12 offers flexural strength of 66 MPa and a flexural modulus of 1,600 MPa, according to the company.
Samples printed with Nylon 12 powder have been evaluated in accordance with ISO 10993-1:2018, and have passed the requirements for the following biocompatibility risks: EN ISO 10993-5:2009; ISO 10993-10:2010/(R)2014; and ISO 10993-10:2010/(R)2014.
Fuse 1’s hopper can hold 18.7 lbs (8.5 kg) of Nylon 12 and offers a material refresh rate of 30-50 percent—meaning up to 70 percent of the powder can be recycled, indefinitely according to Formlabs. The Fuse Sift’s sieve filters out particles to be remixed with new powder and reused in future prints.
Looking Behind the Curtain
Featuring patent pending Surface Armor technology, the Fuse 1 creates a semi-sintered shell that prints around the surface of the part, protecting the part during the print process and enabling great surface finish, high reliability, and high refresh rates, according to the company.
Surface Armor was developed after Formlabs noticed that parts printed with low energy-density showed no evidence of a rough surface texture. The company discovered that if they treated the printed part’s edges with very low energy input, they could keep the bulk of the part printed at full energy density and maintain its mechanical properties all while using low energy density on the edges to prevent birchbark from forming.
Formlabs’ PreForm print preparation allows users to import STL or OBJ part files, orient and arrange models, estimate print times, monitor printers, and upload job files. Its part packing algorithms can automatically arrange multiple models in a build, enabling more effective prints. A touchscreen display offers a live stream of the print bed and the camera view is also available from a computer through PreForm so users can monitor their print without leaving their desk. The company’s cloud-based Dashboard platform also enables users to track printers, teams, and supplies from anywhere.
Not only will the Fuse 1 help Formlabs expand its own footprint in the industrial 3D printing space, the company feels it will substantially expand the market size for industrial 3D printing as a whole by offering truly production-ready 3D printing to an entirely new set of customers. According to Formlabs, their complete end-to-end SLS printing system takes the guesswork and challenges out of creating strong, functional parts while minimizing costs, freeing many organizations from their reliance on what the company claims are expensive and slow external solutions.
“We previously used an outsourced injection-molding workflow to deliver prosthetic fingers to patients young and old, helping them improve mobility and increase functionality; but this process was extremely slow and did not allow for the personalization needed for each patient,” said Matthew Mikosz, founder of Partial Hand Solutions and Fuse 1 beta user. “Fuse 1 gives us the design freedom needed to truly customize our prosthetics and the high productivity and throughput necessary to quickly get this solution to our patients.”
From Idea to Machine
SLA, invented in the 1980s, was the first 3D printing process created and uses a laser to cure liquid resin into hardened plastic in a process called photopolymerization. Of all the plastic additive manufacturing technologies, it provides users with the highest resolution and accuracy, as well as the smoothest surface finish. However, just as machining is not the best fit for all forms of traditional metal manufacturing, SLA has its areas where it shines and its own set of limits.
So, in March of 2014, Formlabs asked itself if there was anything the company could do to make SLS, a process in which a high-powered laser fuses small particles of polymer powder into the final part, more accessible. The company notes that the cheapest commercial SLS 3D printer currently on the market costs around $200,000 and prices can reach as high as $800,000 to $1,000,000.
Available today, starting at $18,499 for the printer or $31,845 for the complete setup including the Fuse Sift, Formlabs claims the Fuse 1 enables users to take control of their entire product development process—from iterating on the first concept design to manufacturing ready-to-use products in production-ready nylon.