Why We Develop Materials For Our 3D Printers In-House

Materials science is special at Formlabs. Many 3D printing companies focus on building hardware and outsource their materials development. Meanwhile, our in-house materials department has doubled in size every year for the past few years, and is dedicated to developing resins specific to our 3D printers.

Each new resin we release expands the capabilities of our machines and, more importantly, what’s possible with desktop 3D printing. In 2016 alone, Formlabs produced nine resins, including specialized materials for dentists, jewelers, and engineers.

We interviewed several members of our materials team to learn more about their unique development process and why it’s helpful to develop materials for our hardware in our Somerville, MA office. Read on to learn more about what it’s like to be a scientist at a 3D printing hardware company!

This post was originally published on the Formlabs Blog.

The Magic of Materials Science

Being a materials scientist is being an inventor. It’s turning raw materials into functional new ones.

“What does it feel like, how stiff is it, how much can you stretch it? It’s interesting to see how the raw materials you’re starting with can translate to those properties,” said Formlabs Materials Scientist Gayla Lyon.

We use various commercially-available and custom post-cure chambers to test optimal post-cure settings for our resins.

Part of the magic of our process is an environment that supports and encourages exploring new ideas.

“A lot of the really cool things we’ve found, like Durable Resin, came from trying things that were completely new,” said Formlabs Materials Scientist JJ Hernandez. “Our team dedicates time to be more open to different types of chemistries.” This dedication to R&D is what leads to the “aha” moments that the Formlabs team is always searching for.

This dedication to R&D is what leads to the “aha” moments that the Formlabs team is always searching for.

“Those times when you print it, measure the mechanical properties, and get even better properties than what you expected or were hoping for,” said Max Zieringer, materials team lead. “That’s an aha moment.”

Cross-Team Collaboration, Printer-Specific Resins

Formlabs Materials Scientist Gayla Lyon measures the critical energy (Ec) of an experimental resin.

Because our resins need to work perfectly with the Form 2, our desktop stereolithography 3D printer, having both our materials and engineering teams in house is invaluable. Everyone is working towards the same goal of beautiful, functional, reliable 3D prints, and there are different levers we can pull to make adjustments, whether changing the formulation, changing the print settings, or overhauling the framework of our print settings all together.

We’re able to use our own printer to discover and explore interesting formulations, and respond to software and hardware requirements more fluidly — sometimes just by walking down the hall.

“A different resin might require algorithmic changes in the software, or motor movements in the printer itself; That all needs to be customized for each resin,” said Formlabs Materials Scientist Alex McCarthy. “The process team optimizes the printer for the resins we make and we do the same. You get a combo that’s pretty superior to what you could get with an off-the-shelf resin, or another company using our material on their printer.”

This was especially critical in developing Flexible Resin. Stereolithography 3D printers build parts in layers; as each layer is cured, it’s separated by a peeling mechanism. This process uses a lot of energy and force, which tends to break apart materials that are soft. This was a challenge, as the function of Flexible Resin requires soft-touch and the ability to be bendable over time.

Because we were able to adjust and test our 3D printers’ functions, we could tweak how the printer creates each layer to find a solution — in this case, the amount of force and speed of peeling.

Real Engineering Works for People

“A real engineer is somebody who sees a problem or unmet need and has to find a solution,” Alex said.

“A lot of what we do is look to find an application somebody has out in the world that needs certain properties. How do we make a material that actually meets those needs? What is this going to bring to the user? That’s how I pick and choose and evaluate which things are going to work.”

“A real engineer is somebody who sees a problem or unmet need and has to find a solution.”
Developing software settings is an important step towards reliable 3D printing. Here, JJ removes a print which has over-adhered to the platform.

Though released all at once, our Engineering Resins were not purposefully developed in tandem. Each material was created in response to clear needs in the field.

Tough Resin, which is similar to an ABS plastic, was initially released in June 2015 to address thermoplastic engineering applications.

Once Tough had been on the market for a while, and we had collected a lot of customer feedback, we determined a number of components that would work well in a reformulation to vastly improve the material.

At the same time, Durable Resin started to fall into place. Tough was getting closer to ABS, so we knew we wanted to create a material that addressed the other thermoplastic typically used in volume, polypropylene (PP).

“The differences between Durable and our new formulation of Tough — the relative stiffnesses, elongations, and so on — created a nice dichotomy that would make sense to a lot of people,” Alex said. “Engineers now have a more clear choice on which material to use depending on what they want their final product to be.”

Formlabs’ dedication to R&D is what leads to the “aha” moments that our materials team is always searching for. Pictured here, tanks of resin used for testing.

Around the same time, we were also working on addressing the need, primarily in the automotive and aerospace industries, for a material able to withstand very high temperatures. Developing High Temp Resin worked well for launching along with the other two materials.

“We chose to do Durable, High Temp, and a Tough reformulation to try to complement our current resin system so there’s really no overlap,” Max said. “We could have also released two or three other resins with narrow properties, but that would have been really confusing to a lot of customers.”

3D Printing Resins in Action

We’re thrilled to see how people use our materials in their work, and we’re looking forward to continuing to develop materials that push the limits of what’s possible with the desktop 3D printers.

“It’s clear that to stay competitive from the materials standpoint, we’re going to need to take risks and try more bold things, and that’s going to be pretty exciting,” Alex said. “It’s good to see the company is supporting that from an R&D standpoint.”

“It still feels like we just started and there’s a whole world to discover,” Max said.

The Science of Choosing 3D Printing Material Colors

Can’t get enough materials science? Read our recent blog post by Formlabs materials scientist Alex McCarthy about how we choose final colors for each new resin formulation!