Can Small Scale 3D Print Businesses like Formwurx Break Into the British High Street?

Posted on July 22, 2015

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3D print appears constantly suspended on the verge of breaking through to popular everyday use, but as the quality of print increases, so too will its use says formwurx founder Jason Spiller.

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Industrial manufacturing and the world of online art and jewellery are well-established markets for 3D printed objects: everything from titanium bone implants and engine parts to intricate bracelets or statuettes. But to get the best results – especially in engineering and medicine – you need high quality prints served up by print bureaus on machines that cost tens or hundreds of thousands.

Middle ground high quality printing is something of an empty space. Now north east independent printer formwurx wants to step into the ring, offering high resolution printing at high street prices. Owner Jason Spiller sees growth in the north east and Newcastle’s 3D scene as a sign of positive change.

“There are a few rapid prototyping companies in the region, but they use very expensive hardware and materials, so their prints are equally expensive,” says Jason. “There is definitely a gap for smaller companies, who can offer a variety of price points, to break into the market and produce work for the many hobbyists, freelancers and students that need it.”

Price point
Investment is needed to bring 3D printing out of the realm of the high priced specialist in a factory unit, to the multi-price generalist on the high street, says Jason. “Raising investment as a new company is tough,” he admits. “Banks and venture capitalists aren’t interested in backing 3D printing on the high street as it’s a relatively unknown quantity, but I guarantee over the next three to five years it will happen. If small independents don’t get there first, it will be the larger chain stores, Staples and the like, that will make headway.”

Space Scene
Newcastle already has a strong 3D printing and maker community focused around Maker Space in Newbridge Street. Jason says the organisers concentrate on designing and building their own machines rather than buying off the shelf units, but they do provide advice and workshops for anyone wanting to find out more about 3D print as well as printing services.

“This is not really what they are about,” says Jason. “They are a maker community, not a retail business, and that encouraged me to think about bringing 3D printing to the high street as there is clearly a market for it. It has already been done successfully in places like Shoreditch in London.”

Fablabs are another common entry point to 3D printing, and Sunderland University is in the process of opening FabLab Sunderland for local enthusiasts.

Form1+

University Entrepreneur
Jason is studying for a degree in architectural technology at the nearby Northumbria University and initially decided to set up formwurx as way to make extra money using his 3D print knowledge. “I bought a second hand Ultimaker original on eBay to make models for my projects, but I wasn’t too impressed by the FDM quality, on newer machines it’s now much better, so I invested in a Formlabs ‘Form 1’ via Kickstarter.”

“It was delayed by almost seven months and when it eventually turned up I didn’t have that much use for it in relation to my course, but it created great models, so I thought why not try to make some money with it? I started advertising on 3D Hubs and set up a website and Facebook page about 18 months ago and just went from there.”

In Fine Form
Jason uses FormLabs high resolution stereolithographic (or SLA) printers because they offer “an extremely high surface quality that is not achievable using fused deposition modelling, fused filament fabrication or selective laser sintering, so is very much suited to projects with a lot of fine surface detail and organic shapes.” SLA printers use photopolymers, resins that solidify when treated with light, while FDM/FFF printers generally extrude thermoplastics and SLS uses a laser to solidify granular or powdered plastics and other materials.

“The Form 1 and Form 1+ were the first ‘affordable’ desktop SLA printers, and are capable of producing amazing prints at a fraction of the price that a bureau would charge,” he says. On average he estimates between 80-60 per cent cheaper, depending on the resolution of the print. Print volume is obviously a limiting factor, and he recommends prints no larger than 110mm x 110mm x 150mm. Form’s build volume is larger than that, but supports to the build platform and rotation need to be take into account.

SLA resin prints have certain limitations, says Jason, curved surfaces are easier to reproduce, linear designs can warp. There is also a peel process that more expensive printers do not require. “Standard resins can be quite brittle when cured, so I would really recommend that prints are used as visual prototypes or masters for casting. There are now new tougher materials, flexible and casting resins available, so it will be interesting to see how they perform.”

Artist’s instinct
Jason admits to preferring 3D art prints above all but it can be a tricky process. “Often the models aren’t created with 3D printing in mind, so it can be a job in itself just taking the artists work, then de-constructing and reconstructing it so that it can be printed into actual objects. I’m learning ZBrush, so I hope to be producing my own sculptures later in the year.”

After undergoing a learning process in setting up Kickstarter campaigns for his own business – a chic ‘3D print cafe’ idea that did not reach its target – he has now refocused and will apply his skills to creating great quality reproductions. “It helped me to think about targeting specific groups,” says Jason. “While formwurx is about 3D printing – and once enough funds are in place, 3d scanning – pretty much anything, I’m creating a sub-set of the business, formwurx studios, which will release garage kits and painted sculptures.”

His first project is a model of H P Lovecraft’s cult beastie ‘Cthulhu‘ to be launched on Kickstarter in July. “I’ll be scouring the 3D art world for artists whose work I would like to reproduce,” says Jason. “I hope to create three or four releases per year and I already have the second project lined up, going live around September. I’m hopeful that this time next year formwurx can be in a position to move onto the high street, perhaps sooner if things go well.”

Jason Spiller models 'green beastie' Chthulhu

Jason Spiller models ‘green beastie’ Chthulhu

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