Founded just over five years ago by three MIT graduates, today Formlabs is one of the 3D printing unicorns, the “proof” that 3D printing can democratize the future of manufacturing. In 2012 Maxim Lobovsky, the company’s CEO, drew on his experience at the MIT Media Lab with his cofounders David Cranor and Natan Linder to create the first high-quality, high-resolution 3D printer available for less than $5,000. In doing so they almost single-handedly created the “prosumer” range of 3D printing. And it all started from the Formlabs HQ in Somerville, MA.
Formlabs’ first 3D printer, the Form 1, was one of the most highly funded Kickstarter projects of its time and rapidly, along with its successors (the Form 1+ and Form 2), enabled the company to establish a global presence. Just a few years later Formlabs became the first 3D printing startup to gain unicorn status last August after raising another $15 million (others have followed since) and already has an annual revenues run rate of approximately $100 million.
The company now has over 100 distributors worldwide and has sold over 40,000 3D printers (possibly more units than all other manufacturers of SLA systems combined). It launched 17 materials for its 3D printers to date and has been growing 100% year on year. These are incredible numbers. Transitioning from a 3-persons startup, dreaming to democratize high-res 3D printing, into a global powerhouse defining much of the future of manufacturing in 7 years is a huge accomplishment and inevitably comes with a lot of challenges. We recently had the opportunity to visit the company’s headquarters to see for ourselves how all this is done.
Inside Formlabs HQ in Boston
I once spoke with Stratasys’ CEO about the challenges of growing more than 35% YoY. Clearly, there are many differences between Stratasys — already well established and with more than $700 million in yearly revenues — and Formlabs. However growing over 100% YoY must be challenging as well, especially because it requires an incredible amount of recruitment and human resource training. When we visited the Formlabs HQ the feeling we got is that the company is moving incredibly fast. A lot of this was due to the fact that Formlabs is in the process of moving to larger buildings and that is something that must happen quite often. The red brick building that the company is in now, while certainly offering a very comfortable place to work has clearly given all that it could.
Reaching the HQ from my apartment in Somerville was very convenient (I actually walked there). However, finding the entrance at 35 Medford street was not exactly easy. It is a small side door with no fancy signs or giant insignias. The impression is that everyone here has been way too busy to think about these things. I finally found a small sign (a bit underwhelming to be honest) indicating that I should proceed upstairs to the third floor to the Reception.
I followed the indications and went up a rather narrow flight of stairs. I have to admit that I did expect a somewhat more “pompous” entrance. However, the feeling of being at the heart of where the Formlabs vision started to take “form” and continues to dramatically shape the AM industry is quite palpable.
Once I arrived at the top of the stairs I found myself back in the more digital, 3D printing world I have grown rather accustomed to. I was helped by an iPad-receptionist that asked me for some information about myself and who I was coming to visit. That was Sarah Wheble, Formlabs’ PR Manager for North America, who had kindly accepted my offer to come to visit during my stay in Boston. Sarah has been at Formlabs since December 2017, so less than a year at the time of my visit.
Noobies to veterans
Sarah — like many others — has had to take a real crash course on the AM industry, which kind of makes me feel like a veteran (and I have been covering AM for only about as long as Formlabs has existed, which—in the timeline of the industry— is not all that long). The funny thing is that in just a few months, Sarah has also become a veteran compared to the flow of young people who constantly enter the AM industry, Formlabs and many other rapidly growing companies of all sizes. This is the pace that the AM industry is moving at. It’s not normal for any industry and certainly, it is even less normal for the industrial manufacturing sector. The only sector where such a rate of growth has been normal until today is the digital — and very much virtual — world of software.
The reception and waiting room are welcoming and the offices feel like pleasant spaces to be and work in. A 3D printed R2D2 guards the entrance as I wait for Sarah to come to meet me. When she arrives I do get the feeling that she has so many other things going and that she really had to make a bit of an effort to take the time to show me around. She confirms that the company is growing at breakneck speed and — after rapidly occupying more and more sections of the building — it is now in the process of moving to new buildings. I can only imagine how hard it must be to keep enrolling new people while running a $100M global business and changing HQ. The underlying impression is that Formlabs has a sufficiently consolidated business workflow and is now making so much money that it will be able to overcome this somewhat confusing transitional phase.
As we start going around the offices I see a lot of artifacts from the history of 3D printing around me. One object, in particular, catches my attention. It looks like the violin that was on the cover of The Economist when the magazine dedicated a large article to additive manufacturing in 2011, titled “Print me a Stradivarius”. It was this article that first opened my eyes to the possibilities of additive manufacturing when I was a journalist covering consumer electronics. Although the model on the cover of the Economist was 3D printed using EOS technology, it must have been inspirational to Formlabs’ founders as well since the company came along shortly thereafter. They probably thought that they could 3D print it for a lot less. And they did, building a small empire in the process and further disrupting a disruptive industry.
History in the making
More artefacts around the offices tell about the history of Formlabs (the two things often coincided in recent years). One very physical poster shows many of the iterations that Formlabs’ 3D printers components went through. Another shows every single component that makes up a Form 2 3D printer. This very advanced desktop system offered some key advantages that make it into a global best-seller. These include the ability to 3D print high-resolution, industrial quality parts, right on the desktop. It is very competitively priced at just over $3,000 compared to many other SLA systems (although acceptable quality desktop SLA systems are now entering the market at much lower prices). Formlabs — much like the established SLA companies that it challenged with its business models (3D Systems, Stratasys, DWS) — can now fend off new challenges from lower-priced machines by guaranteeing superior reliability and offering a wider — and growing — range of materials. And new machine systems on the way, as it is made clear to me in the presentation.
From desktop to mass production
The company is playing a key role in enabling mass customization and digital, additive mass production. In order to do this more proficiently, it has chosen two different and very clear strategies. One is by giving its users the ability to network several 3D printers into automated production lines called FormCell. These enable faster productivity and an automated workflow that handles a component all the way through the printing, washing and curing phases. The second is by finally catching up to that early on Stradivarius vision, and introducing a high productivity SLS system, the Fuse 1, at a very affordable price point (below $15,000). The machine is expected to arrive sometime in 2019 and Formlabs hopes that it will succeed where no one has yet established a solid foothold (although Sintratec and Sinterit are working hard at it as well): the desktop SLS business segment. Another possible direction, not shown here, is through the introduction of functional end-use materials such as ceramics.
The rest of the tour takes me through the Formlabs offices. Unfortunately, I was not able to take photos in several rooms where the 3D printers are tested, fixed or assembled. This is due to both obvious competitive concerns as well as the fact that the current offices are in a state of relative messiness, due to the recent booming growth and upcoming move.
The offices I was able to photograph have also pretty much reached their full capacity in terms of available workstations. Overall Formlabs did seem like a great place to work, especially for the great future perspectives that the company can offer. Even as we write, Formlabs has over 100 open full-time positions around the world. This means that if you enter the company now, your chances of building a career are very good and the time it will take you for going from “new entry” to “senior” is extremely short.
While my visit was short, and while I did expect to see a more “corporate” type of office, it must not be forgotten that Formlabs — even as successful as it is now — started from nothing but an idea and a Kickstarter campaign just over six years ago. The next phase of its existence — the one where the company is expected to live up to its funder’s expectations — is just starting now. So in a way, it was great to see the “caterpillar shell”, before it turns into a butterfly… or a unicorn.