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
Schneider Electric and Stratasys recently announced a partnership aimed at expanding Schneider’s use of 3D printing to include injection molds for electronic components and tooling for assembly. The components are printed using Stratasys’ fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology. By switching from milled aluminum to printed polymer, Schneider is able to cut production costs for a mold from €1,000 ($1,120) to €100 ($112), and the lead time from a month to a week. 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.
The technology world is abuzz with the recent announcement that Google is buying Titan Aerospace, a maker of high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that Facebook had only recently been considering (it bought Ascenta for $20 million instead). Ostensibly, both companies are looking at UAVs (also referred to as “drones”) as an opportunity to deliver Internet access to the roughly five billion people who lack reliable land-based access today. But that goal still leaves many people wondering about the business rationale – how will billing work, who will pay to advertise to the unconnected masses, and what are those technology giants really up to anyway?
To understand why content providers are spending billions on drones, you have to think about their long-term strategy. Recently, there was a huge defeat for Google and other content providers in a ruling about what’s called “Net Neutrality.” It basically says that landline and mobile carriers like AT&T and Verizon can start charging more for people to access certain sites, even though they swear the action will not be anticompetitive. So, for example, you might have to pay the carrier extra to see YouTube (which Google owns) or Instagram (which Facebook owns) or Netflix or Amazon Prime movies. In fact, just in February Netflix struck a deal to pay Comcast, which supposedly is already showing faster access times, but has not stopped the partners from bickering over unfair competition and exertion of power. Also, AT&T has a $500 million plan to crush Netflix and Hulu, so the competitive backstabbing has already begun.
Where do drones disrupt this strategy? Most obviously, having their own networks would allow Facebook and Google to bypass the domination of wireless and wireline carriers (like AT&T and Verizon in the U.S.) whose business practices – e.g. knocking down Net Neutrality – are geared towards throttling content providers like Facebook, Google, and their partners and subsidiaries like YouTube. Need more bandwidth? New neighborhood being built? Blackout? Natural catastrophe? Launch more drones – and expand service in hours, not years. Drones serving network connectivity allow Google, Facebook, and Amazon to bypass the toll lanes – and, incidentally, make instantly obsolete the landline infrastructure that their enemies Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have spent decades and tens to hundreds of billions of dollars building out. Connectivity in emerging markets is a feint – look for delivering content in the developed world to be the first battle, and call these Machiavellian strategies the “Game of Drones.”
Could this really happen? Both drone technology and wireless connectivity technology are relatively mature and work well. Both are still improving every year of course, and it is possible to deliver some connectivity via drones today. However, more innovation is needed for them to be commercially viable, and future incremental development will be about integrating and improving parts, so more people can have more bandwidth with greater reliability and lower cost. For example, the engineers might integrate the broadband transceiver antenna with the drone’s wings (as Stratasys and Optomec have tried — client registration required) which could eliminate the cost and weight of a separate antenna, while allowing the antenna to also be very large and more effective. Drones’ needs could drive development of battery chemistries that outperform lithium-ion (client registration required), like lithium-sulfur (client registration required) from companies like Oxis Energy (client registration required). High-performance composites and lightweight, lower-power electronics technologies like conductive polymers (client registration required) will also be key.
What’s next? One of the most obvious additional uses would be to attach cameras, and use them for monitoring things like traffic, agriculture, and parks, even finding empty parking spaces – things that an AT&T repair van can never do. Maybe the drones become telemedicine’s robotic first responders (client registration required), sending imagery of accidents as they happen, and swooping down to help doctors reach injured victims within seconds, not minutes. While these examples may seem far-fetched, it’s really very hard to say exactly what they will be used for, only because our own imaginations are very limited.
Within the autonomous airspace space, there’s much more flying around than just glider-style UAVs. For example, Google’s “Project Loon” has similar stated goals of delivering internet access. The new investment in Titan does not necessarily mean Google is leaving lighter-than-air technologies; it’s just that Google has already invested in that technology and is now looking at other aircraft platforms for doing similar things in different environments. Investments in small satellites from companies like SkyBox and PlanetLabs are also taking off. And of course, there are Amazon’s delivery drones – rotary-wing UAVs more like helicopters: speed and navigation in small spaces are important, and they need to carry the weight of packages, so they need to be small and powerful.
Each of these technologies has spin-off effects – both threats and opportunities – for companies in adjacent spaces, such as materials or onboard power. Only batteries or liquid fuels are dense enough energy sources for rotary-wing aircraft, while Google’s Titan and Loon aircraft are more like glider planes or blimps: big, light, and slow, just staying in roughly the same place for hours, days, or even years. Solar energy needs a large area for collecting solar energy, so big glider and blimp drones can use solar. Technology providers in these areas stand to gain if more companies deploy their own UAV fleets.
So, UAVs are an important strategic technology for both companies, even if the money-making part of the business is far off. Yes, someday you might have a Google drone as your ISP, but that’s not the primary business case behind these investments today. Google and Facebook need to make investments in these airborne platforms for the same reasons that countries did 100 years ago – to defend their territory, metaphorically speaking. For example, Nokia should have done a better job launching smartphones before Apple and Google, and Kodak should have launched digital cameras before all the consumer electronics companies did. If Google and Facebook (and Amazon, and others…) don’t have drone technology in five to 10 years, they may be as bankrupt as Nokia and Kodak (ironically, Nokia launched mobile phone cameras, which accelerated Kodak’s bankruptcy). Instead, it may be today’s mobile phone and cable television providers who go the way of the landline.
Looking beyond the land of information technology, these examples are powerful illustrations of the fact that we seldom actually know what any new technology is really going to be used for. Even today, we dismiss mobile phone cameras, Facebook, and Twitter as frivolous social tools, but where would Tunisia and Egypt be today without them? Local Motors (client registration required) is just making one-off dune buggies – until GE sees that their microfactories are the future of manufacturing appliances, too. Crowdfunding is just a bunch of kids selling geegaws – until products like the Pebble smartphone beat the Samsung Gear (client registration required), start challenging the now-retreating Nike Fuelband, and even attack the smart home market. Google and Facebook might be saying today that they intend to bring connectivity to new places, even if in reality nobody at all can really say what they’ll do in 2018. While they probably have secret plans, those plans are almost certainly wrong – but better than no plan at all. Companies that plan to survive beyond a few quarterly earnings calls have to make sure they are well positioned to catch whatever falls from new technology’s blue skies.