How it Started — From DLP to Woven Fiber Composites
EnvisionTEC was founded in 2002, based on a then-novel approach to vat photopolymerization, in which a high-definition projector is used to cure liquid resin instead of the UV laser beam commonly used in stereolithography or SLA approaches at that time.
However, the path to the company’s inception started much earlier and was not linear.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in engineering from Lawrence Technological University in 1990, Al Siblani, was hired in his mid-20s by an early 3D printer manufacturer, Helisys of Torrance, Calif. In his role, Siblani installed the company’s lamination object manufacturing (LOM) machines in the Detroit area, to customers such as the Detroit Three automakers and many of their suppliers.
In 1993, Siblani completed his Master’s Degree in electrical and computer engineering from Wayne State University and also founded his own company, Sibco, Inc., in Ferndale, Michigan, which focused on providing service and consumables for 3D printer machines. This company gave Siblani perspective into the full range of technologies available in the marketplace, as well as their shortcomings.
In about 1996, Siblani conceived of the idea of using an HD theater-style projector to cure resin in a new 3D printing process, and he called a former engineering colleague from Helisys, Alexander “Sasha” Shkolnik, to assist him with developing a machine using the new approach.
For the next four years, Siblani and Shkolnik worked on the concept. A functional DLP machine was completed in about 2000.
About that time, while traveling at a trade show in Europe, Siblani was made aware of a company in Germany, Envision Technologies GmbH, that had filed a patent for a similar approach.
After meeting with the company to discuss a possible collaboration, Siblani made the discovery that Envision Technologies had only a non-functioning concept machine, while he had a complete and functioning printer. In any case, the German company rejected the offer of collaboration.
Siblani and Shkolnik continued to develop their idea, and two years later, Siblani received a call that investors in Envision Technologies had pulled their funding and the company was in receivership.
In 2002, Siblani purchased the company’s assets, including the company’s intellectual property, which also included the 3D-Bioplotter, which has been developed in concert with the University of Freiburg in Germany, through the bankruptcy court system. The creation of EnvisionTEC GmbH and EnvisionTEC Inc. followed.
The following year, EnvisionTEC showed and sold its first DLP machines in the United States, at a jewelry trade show in Dearborn, Michigan.
Siblani and Shkolnick, who has been the company’s Chief Technology Officer since the company’s inception, have been passionately leading development of additional 3D printing features, methods and strategies, and all-new machines and materials, ever since.
Key Relationship Leads to New Technology
A fortuitous relationship was forged in the late 2000s between EnvisionTEC and Z Corporation, also known as ZCorp, which was born out of technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The core technology of ZCorp, which at one point had about 25% share of the 3D printing market, was ZPrinting, which deposited a liquid binder material on a bed of gypsum powder to build prototype parts in full color.
In 2010, EnvisionTEC began contract manufacturing a DLP printer called the ZBuilder Ultra that was sold by ZCorp until the company was acquired by 3D Systems in January 2012. The ZBuilder Ultra had successfully competed against machines sold by 3D Systems.
However, the team at ZCorp had active R&D ongoing in 3D printing of sand molds and cores using a similar approach to inket a binding agent onto sand.
In 2010, prior to the 3D Systems acquisition of ZCorp, a small team of ZCorp employees, including ZCorp co-founder Dr. Jim Bredt, founded a company called Viridis3D to focus on 3D technology with a unique print head attached to a robot arm. The RAM 123 system was launched in the first half of 2015, and EnvisionTEC and Viridis3D executed their exclusive strategic relationship in the first quarter of 2016.
In all, EnvisionTEC employs at least four distinct processes to additively manufacture objects from digital design files, and many of these processes are protected, in full or part, by U.S. and foreign patents. These 3D printing processes include:
- Bioprinting. The EnvisionTEC 3D-Bioplotter series is a robust 3D printing machine that processes open-source materials using air or mechanical pressure to a syringe, which fabricates in a Cartesian movement, with X-Y repeatability down to 1 μm, guided by proprietary software. EnvisionTEC offers three bioprinter models, a Starter, Developer and Manufacturer series, which are designed for use in a sterile biosafety cabinet, which meets standards for clinical trials. Each model offers a range of print heads and modular options, such as a heated platform and sterile filter, which is recommended for cell and organ printing.
- Vat Photopolymerization. Within this category, where a part is produced from a vat/tray where a resin is selectively photocured or hardened by a light source, EnvisionTEC sells a variety of machines that are further subdivided by critical differences:
- DLP or Digital Light Processing. In this category, which EnvisionTEC commercialized in 2002, the company sells both desktop and production-sized machines that use a high-definition projector to, in simplified terms, cure one layer of material at a time. This approach is much faster than conventional SLA printing, which draws out objects with a laser beam, and it also delivers extreme accuracy and smooth surface finish at small to medium build-envelope sizes. EnvisionTEC sells more than five different brand names of DLP machines, with variations to meet the specifications of certain markets.
- 3SP or Scan, Spin and Selectively Photocure technology. In an effort to deliver high accuracy and resolution while building larger parts, or, alternatively, many smaller parts on a larger build envelope, EnvisionTEC’s proprietary 3SP technology reflects a diode laser on a rotating drum through a series of lens systems, to accurately cure resin across a relatively wide build envelope, up to 5800 cubic inches. EnvisionTEC offers five different brand names of 3SP machines.
- cDLM or Continuous Digital Light Manufacturing. Based on an approach for which EnvisionTEC first filed a patent in 2006, EnvisionTEC offers two models of high-speed 3D printers that build with continuous motion of the build platform in the Z axis. This is an advancement from traditional DLP methods where the build platform essentially stops for each exposure layer before advancing to the next exposure. By continuously moving in the Z axis, the build can progress more quickly and there are other benefits in terms of surface quality.
- Binder jetting. Through its exclusive strategic partnership with Viridis3D, EnvisionTEC offers a unique robot-controlled binder jetting technology for the foundry industry. A proprietary 28-inch-wide print head is attached to an ABB robot arm that moves in a Cartesian movement, controlled by proprietary software, to deposit sand and strategically print a binding agent on a work table. The Viridis3D RAM 123 system currently builds sand molds and cores up to 1’ x 2’ by 3’, but it is scalable for larger types of projects and other types of 3D printing materials, including 3D printing of PMMA (polymethyl methacrylate), which is ideal for investment casting. Currently, a new RAM 224 system, which builds up to 2’ x 2’ x 4’, is under development.
- SLCOM or Selective Lamination Composite Object Manufacturing. A unique technology to additively manufacture woven fiber composites pre-impregnated with thermoplastics, called traditional prepregs, that delivers strong, machinable final components up to 30 x 24 x 24 inches that are ideal for aerospace, automotive, defense and other applications. The SLCOM 1 machine based on this new approach was previewed in 2016.
Given EnvisionTEC’s broad portfolio of 3D printing processes, EnvisionTEC has no direct competitor across all categories and it generally faces different competitors in different process categories in various markets that are maturing at different paces.
As a result of EnvisionTEC’s diversity of technologies and end users, the company has enjoyed double-digit sales growth throughout its history, with little impact during economic downturns to date.
Timeline of Events —
- Launch of EnvisionTEC
- Launch with 3D-Bioplotter (previously under development by University of Freiburg Material Research Center and Envision Technologies GmbH)
- Launch of Perfactory DLP printer
- Launch of second generation Perfactory printer
- Launch of second generation 3D-Bioplotter
- Launch of third generation 3D-Bioplotter
- Launch of third generation Perfactory
- Launch of the Perfactory Xede and Perfactory Xtreme large frame DLP printers
- Launch of Desktop Aureus DLP printer
- Launch of the second generation Desktop printer
- Launch of fourth generation 3D-Bioplotter, now called 3D-Bioplotter Manufacturing Series
- Launch of the second generation Perfactory Xede and Perfactory Xtreme large frame DLP printers
- Launch of the ZBuilder Ultra DLP printer in partnership with ZCorp.
- Launch of fourth generation Perfactory, with the Mini, Mini XL, Standard and Standard XL P4 models
- Launch of second generation Ultra DLP
- Launch of EnvisionTEC’s all-new 3SP technology, with the 3Dent, Ultra and Xede and Xtreme, which no longer use the DLP process. The new process uses a PSA film.
- EnvisionTEC now offers 40+ materials
- Launch of 3D-Bioplotter Developer Series
- Launch of EnvisionTEC Micro Advantage DLP desktop printer
- Launch of Desktop Apollo DLP 3D printer
- Launch of EPIC curable material for the jewelry
- EnvisionTEC 3D-Bioplotter receives Ad-hoc award from Devicemed at COMPAMED 2014 for its ability to process soft hydrogels, polymer melts, ceramics and metals.
- EnvisionTEC now offers 50+ materials
- Launch of the Vector 3SP large frame 3D printer, Xede and Xtreme, using the blade recoater system versus a PSA
- EnvisionTEC CEO Al Siblani announced as a EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2015 Finalist for Michigan and Northwest Ohio
- Launch of the 3D-Bioplotter Starter Series
- Launch of the Micro Plus cDLM high-speed continuous 3D printer, the first use of EnvisionTEC’s patented continuous technology
- Launch of the SLCOM 1, the first Selective Lamination Composite Object Manufacturing concept machine for woven fiber composites.
- Launch of the Vector Hi-Res 3SP with almost double the resolution of the standard Vector 3SP
- Launch of the Desktop Plus line of DLP 3D printers, including the Aureus Plus, Apollo, Desktop XL and more.
- Announcement of exclusive strategic partnership with Viridis3D, an outgrowth of ZCorp that specializes in robotic 3D printing of sand molds and cores for foundries. First Viridis3D install of RAM 123 at Trident Alloys.
- Launch of the Vida cDLM high-speed continuous 3D printer for the dental market
- Launch of E-IDB material for 3D printing of indirect bonding trays for application of orthodontic brackets
- Launch of new distributor partnership with ScanSource, a leading global technology provider
- EnvisionTEC now offers 70+ materials