While many venture-backed 3D printing companies approach fundraising with careful consideration towards overvaluation and future “down round” risks, two high profile 3D printing companies have taken these risks to a new level. Carbon and Desktop Metal have raised nine-figure funding rounds, ultimately attaining unicorn status (at least a $1 billion valuation for a private company), which helps separate them as up and coming leaders in additive manufacturing. With this level of fundraising comes inherent risks; the technology must live up to its potential across multiple applications to achieve expected growth. This technical risk is partially mitigated by extensive financial support for product development, and partnership opportunities through industry interest in such well-funded startups. Continue reading
The dental industry requires easy and fast production of highly customized parts. As 3D printing is well-suited for fast production of customized parts, easy-to-use, highly accurate, and cost effective 3D printing solutions are becoming increasingly preferred over subtractive CNC milling-based methods. Combined hardware, materials, and software advancements are driving adoption, and the solutions allow for direct printing of dental appliances including restorations, surgical (drill) guides, night guards, splints, custom impression trays, and denture bases as well as dental models for investment casting of aforesaid appliances and other appliances, such as aligners. This insight summarizes the emerging technologies that drive this adoption and those that are likely to advance dental manufacturing in the near and long term.
In 2016, 3D printer sales to the dental industry grew by 75% compared to the previous year. One of the main reasons for this growth is the emergence of desktop professional 3D printers. These printers fill the gap between costly industrial metal and polymer printers (starting at $100,000) and low cost consumer desktop printers (below $3,000). Desktop professional 3D printers offer high accuracy, precision, and often high speed at a competitive price from $3,000 to $15,000. These combined qualities make these printers suitable for dentistry where rapid production of customized parts is necessary. Companies leading the development and sales of desktop professional 3D printers for dental applications including Formlabs, DWS, and EnvisionTEC. Formlabs has developed a desktop stereolithography (SLA) 3D printer called the Form 2 that enables direct or indirect production of dental models and appliances using photopolymer resins. The Form 2’s main differentiator is the ability to print parts with high accuracy and precision at a lower upfront cost compared to industrial printers. Similarly, DWS has also developed an SLA 3D printer, called DFAB, which allows for direct printing of dental restorations with a comparably low 20 minute post-processing time. Given the benefits of these printers compared to industrial printers, the sales of these printers are likely to continue growing.
In addition to the advances at the 3D printer level, there are more biocompatible printable materials now suitable for long-term oral use. Although biocompatible metals, such as cobalt chrome and its alloys provided by EOS and 3D Systems, have been available for more than a decade, the availability of biocompatible photopolymer resins were limited until recently. There are now more resins that can offer aesthetic and functional advantages over metals, too. For example, Formlabs, EnvisionTEC, and DWS have resins suited for direct or indirect printing of dental applications, and some of these resins come in multiple shades for mixing to create a more natural color. These resins are costly (starting from $250/kg); however, cost per application is reasonable because it is possible to 3D-print tens of dental models or appliances using 1 kilogram of resin. Furthermore, despite increased resin availability with different mechanical properties and color options, they still lack variety – in terms of strength and abrasion resistance – to suit different use cases. Going forward, there is a need for more biocompatible resins appropriate for printing dental appliances, and this need creates further opportunities for material developers. Thus, clients producing materials should consider engaging with 3D printer producers to develop new 3D printable biocompatible resins.
Another big challenge to increase adoption is throughput, and there are other technologies, such as multi-printer systems, that emerged in order to automate higher-volume part production. These systems claim to reduce time and cost for manufacturing tens of parts at the same time while automating part removal and resin-refilling tasks. Although these multi-printer systems do not have wide-spread adoption today, they are likely to influence the dental market in the long term. Currently, there are a number of companies offering multi-printer systems including Stratasys, 3D Systems, AMSYSTEMS Center (TNO), and Massportal. One example developer of such systems for dental applications is Coobx, which offers production line systems composed of eight to twelve in-house developed desktop professional printers. According to the company, their systems are capable of completing the printing cycle for dental models used to make aligners in 30 minutes, and can print up to 80 parts at the same time. Despite promising specifications, only large dental clinics and laboratories can justify the high initial costs of these systems as of now.
Last but not least, dentists increasingly use 3D scanning equipment to produce 3D models directly from 3D scan data. Digital impression solutions already have widespread use in dentistry, and dental labs and clinics that use these solutions are more likely to adopt 3D scanning. As a result, accurate 3D scanners and specific appliance design and optimization software help create better 3D models, and hence help further adoption of 3D printing. As an example, DWS has developed its own software, allowing dental professionals to edit part appearance and design.
Overall, low-cost, highly accurate 3D printers and biocompatible 3D printable materials availability are the key drivers of near-term adoption of dental 3D printing applications. These technological developments go hand-in-hand with design software and 3D scanning advances to provide the industry the tools for fast production of highly customized dental parts.
By: Tugce Uslu
Selective laser sintering is a powder bed printing technology that raster’s a laser over a bed of very fine plastic powder and sinters it to produce individual part layers. To see what this long-standing technology’s outlook is, our analysts have taken a comparative look at the SLS system provider and materials landscape. Continue reading
Hewlett-Packard (HP) recently released a white paper detailing its planned 3D printer. HP’s “Multi Jet Fusion” system claims a tenfold increase in build speed, improved part quality with controllable properties like color, elasticity and strength, and better “economics” than current offerings. The printer functions by inkjet printing binder into a bed of powdered thermoplastic, though the company claimed this technology could ultimately print metals and ceramics. HP’s accompanying press release said the printers would be available in 2016.
Along with its decision to split into two companies, this move into the 3D printing space would appear geared at turning around the company’s financial fortunes and reversing a declining culture of innovation. However, while others have focused on offering investment advice or lauding the move as primed to radically change manufacturing, a closer reading of the white paper reveals several holes in HP’s performance claims, in several key areas:
- Speed and part precision. HP is not the first to try to improve printer throughput. Technologies like Loughborough University’s High Speed Sintering (HSS) printer have achieved similar tenfold improvement in print speed over selective laser sintering (SLS) printers. However, the tradeoff is part precision, as printed parts require post-processing to achieve the same surface smoothness as SLS parts. HP’s printer will likely also require post-processing to achieve similar results.
- Part properties. HP’s white paper contains a laundry list of impressive properties that the new printer will be able to control: surface roughness, friction, opacity, color, and electrical and thermal conductivity. There is a catch, however: Reading the footnotes reveals that these are just possibilities, and not all have been selected for inclusion in the first generation of printers. At this time, HP has only demonstrated parts with multiple colors. Until more information is revealed, it seems that color printing is the only capability that will make it into the 2016 model printers.
- Economics. Again, reading the footnotes proves to be critical to understanding HP’s claims. HP compares its offerings to SLS printers like those of 3D Systems (client registration required) or EOS (client registration required), that range in price from $200,000 (polyamide printer) to $1.2 million (polyketone printer). Given that it has chosen SLS as its benchmark, HP’s printers could cost into the low hundreds of thousands of dollars and still be considered “economical.” Meanwhile, companies like Z Corp (now owned by 3D Systems) offer printers cheaper than $40,000, which would make HP’s look far less favorable in comparison. What’s more, HP gives no estimate of material or binder costs, a critical input for total cost of ownership.
Despite these significant questions regarding the value proposition of the Multi Jet Fusion, HP’s entry into the 3D printing space remains significant as it is sure to attract attention and catalyze innovation and investment activity industry-wide. The giant company’s vast network and distribution channels could help accelerate growth of the entire space. Additionally, HP’s core technology is amenable to multi-material printing, which if properly developed could significantly expand the possibilities of printed objects.
HP’s statement that it “is inviting creative collaboration in materials for 3D printing” is on the surface encouraging, as it appears to eschew the closed materials business models employed by today’s leading printer companies that thwart 3D printable material development (see the report “How 3D Printing Adds Up: Emerging Materials, Processes, Applications, and Business Models” — client registration required). However, HP’s “Frequently Asked Questions” accompaniment reveals that “HP aims to lead the market by developing new 3D print materials, using color, biocompatible, ceramic, metal, and other materials” – implying its invitation of creative collaboration is likely just a euphemism for the shortsighted razor/blade business models already employed by the likes of 3D Systems, Stratasys, and EOS that prioritize next quarter’s profits over innovation and long term growth. HP would be well served focusing on refining its hardware technology and demonstrating concrete improvements on price or performance, and leaving material development to material experts, much like electron beam melting (EBM) pioneer Arcam (client registration required) did to accelerate its commercial traction in aerospace and medical production applications. Until then, HP’s claims of revolutionizing the 3D printing space will remain as flimsy as the paper they are printed on.
3D printing start-up MatterFab recently announced it can deliver metal printing systems of comparable quality to those of established players like EOS (client registration required) at one tenth the price. It plans to complete an initial round of performance tests in the coming months and ship test models to partners early next year. To further dig into these bold claims, we caught up with CEO Matthew Burris, who told us that MatterFab’s printer is a conventional selective laser sintering (SLS) platform with little technical differentiation from current printers; it can currently print on stainless steel. Matt said significant cost reduction is achievable by altering the design of the printer. He referenced the window into the print area as one example; this part was costly so he replaced it with a cheap webcam. In addition to these changes to peripheral systems, Matterfab will use lower-powered lasers, which Matt claimed could produce printed parts of equivalent quality to available systems. He also told us that the company will adopt an open materials model.
MatterFab’s claims of equivalent performance at a vastly lower price are hard to believe, especially considering the maturity of established SLS printer providers (see the report “Building the Future: Assessing 3D Printing’s Opportunities and Challenges” — client registration required). While cutting corners on peripheral systems will save it some money, the main cost of 3D printers is in the lasers, powder handling systems, and mechanics that move the laser and print tray. If MatterFab uses a cheaper, lower powered laser it will have to move more slowly over the metal powder to ensure that it is fully melted. This will in turn slow down build time and cause more widespread heating of the printed part, reducing accuracy and subjecting the part to multiple heating and cooling cycles, likely resulting in decreased part strength. Without a clear technical innovation, it’s uncertain how MatterFab will meet its performance and price goals. Until performance data becomes available, MatterFab’s claims should be regarded with skepticism.
However, this does not mean there is no potential market for the company. The tight controls on printable materials enforced by major industry players like EOS and 3D Systems (client registration required) create opportunity for emerging innovators to develop a wider selection of products and properties (see the report “How 3D Printing Adds Up: Emerging Materials, Processes, Applications, and Business Models” — client registration required). For instance, EOS only offers 12 metal print materials, a pittance compared to the thousands of commercially available alloys. This is a boon for MatterFab and its open materials platform. Instead of attempting to beat larger and more mature incumbents on price and quality, MatterFab should focus on customers who wish to print specialty alloys (client registration required) that can’t be printed today. This strategy has proven successful for electron beam melting (EBM) printer producer Arcam (client registration required), which works with clients to evaluate third-party materials for use in its printers.