At the recent 3D Systems 2015 Investor and Analyst meeting, Avi Reichental and Chuck Hull disclosed plans for a much faster SLA printing method called Continuous SLA. Hull described a modified ProJet (micro-SLA) 1200 that incorporated the improvements and was capable of printing four times faster than a current ProJet 1200. He also explained that speed gains increase with a larger build area.
"...we think we can take this continuous printing not just to four times faster in this small Micro-SLA, we can make larger versions, faster versions and so over the next few periods we're going to see continuing introductions of continuous SLA products," said Hull.
Reichental then asked Hull, "Can you go 10x in a slightly bigger format?"
Hull responded, "Yes, we can, yes."
The full transcript of the meeting is posted at Seeking Alpha.
If this sounds familiar, it is likely because of the splash made by Carbon3D's Joe DeSimone demonstrating Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) at TED. Carbon3D's printer incorporates an SLA-derived method of 3D printing (DLP), but with a twist. CLIP realizes a feature engineers have speculated would improve cured resin printing for a while. It diminishes excess mechanical movement by forming an oxygen layer at the build point which creates a persistent liquid interface, avoiding adhesion to the VAT's base and keeping liquid resin in place for the next layer. This eliminates the need to pull and return the part a significant distance after each layer is printed and radically reduces time between layers. The end result is super fast SLA and quicker 3D printing than anything else known, while maintaining SLA quality.
One has to imagine the TED announcement made current SLA manufacturers nervous when they learned Carbon3D had filed two patents concerning CLIP – one titled "Continuous liquid interphase printing" and the other, "Method and apparatus for three-dimensional fabrication with feed through carrier." Since venture capital firms love patentable technology, Carbon3D's coffers were soon bursting with millions of dollars, which also probably made current SLA manufacturers nervous.
3D Systems is the most prominent of the current SLA manufacturers with a significant portion of sales still coming from professional class SLA machines – the technology invented by Hull which launched the 3D printing industry. Carbon3D's CLIP entering the scene isn't exactly the kind of development that encourages 3D Systems shareholders, so it is only logical that the company react. Continuous SLA is the reaction and it appears Hull's team already has modified Micro-SLA units functioning.
This does not necessarily mean we are about to see some legal saber rattling between Carbon3D and 3D Systems. It's certainly possible, but not a foregone conclusion. Carbon3D's implementation of an oxygen layer that creates a liquid resin dead zone is just one method of accomplishing the SLA speed gain. Others such as Australia's Gizmo 3D and the University of Buffalo's Bo Pang have had similar results, although not done in exactly the same way. It's safe to assume 3D Systems' lawyers and developers have devised a continuous SLA process that will withstand a patent infringement challenge. It's also safe to assume other established SLA manufacturers such as EnvisionTEC, Formlabs and FSL3D are working on their own answers to CLIP.
One way or another, super fast SLA printing is coming. It will be fun to watch the players patent dodge and try to improve on Carbon3D's breakthrough.