Interview with Fabio Esposito, CEO of Solidscape

Solidscape is a division in Stratasys that creates beautiful 3D printers like the Solidscape Max2 High Precision 3D Printer. Solidscape 3D Printers make models out of wax which allows them to be absurdly accurate with amazing dimensional tolerances and a layer height that can go down to just a few microns on the Pro model.

At Bold Machines, we've recently gotten a Solidscape Max2 High Precision 3D Printer and it's been running 24/7 printing out prototypes of projects that we are planning to take to a foundry and have cast in metal.

We caught up with Fabio to interview him about Solidscape and get some background on the company.

What is the origin story of Solidscape? 

Solidscape was founded under the name Sanders Prototype, Inc. in 1993 by Royden C. Sanders to build PC-based 3D wax printers for rapid prototyping and creating master molds used for investment casting. Sanders Prototype was originally headquartered in Wilton, New Hampshire and later moved to its current location in Merrimack, New Hampshire. In early 1998, a new management team was installed, and a substantial reorganization ensued. Sanders Prototype renamed itself Solidscape, Inc. in the Fall of 2000.

The first product was the Model Maker which was a DOS-based desktop printer able to create high-resolution three-dimensional wax objects created in CAD software packages. This machine was accurate to less than 1 thousandth of an inch, allowing operators to create very small, very detailed models. The wax models could then be cast without the need of a master pattern or rubber mold.

Solidscape’s machines established themselves as a favorite among custom jewelers, who appreciated the ability to create custom designs for customers and deliver finished goods faster and more consistently than creating them by hand.

Those first machines shipped with a vacuum cleaner and a lot of large custom hardware that would connect to a 486 DOS based computer. We've come a long way and now Solidscape high precision 3D printers have a desktop footprint, a touch screen panel and don’t require a trained operator nor a pc to run.  You can operate them just like a 2D printer.

Solidscape machines have ultra high precision. How do you do it? 

Creating a high precision 3D printer wasn't easy. The solution we came up with is the manifestation of 2 concepts: 

1.      SCP® which stands for Smooth Curvature Printing. This is our proprietary technology based on Vector Printing that allows us to position drops smaller than .003 inches (75um) in diameter exactly where you want them in the X and Y coordinate

2.       Controlled Layer Thickness, through a rotary cutter, that allows to slice parts down to 6um in the z axes (btw, we can go even lower e.g. 3um but never seen any value).  The layer thickness can be configured to vary across the Z axes where you can have regions at 6um if you need the highest precision and others at different thickness. This means that after we put down a layer of material, we run a rotary cutter over the model to which allows us to control the layer height with extremely high precision. 

What is the main application for Solidscape 3D printers? 

Solidscape high precision 3D printers are used for the manufacturing of wax patterns.  The combination of high precision printing and casting material properties are ideal when manufacturing complex, intricate geometries for lost-wax casting application.   Basically anyone who does lost wax casting can use a Solidscape 3D printer to compress the innovation cycle. We see lots of our customers using Solidscape 3D printers in the Jewelry and Industrial Applications fields. Dentistry is also a growing market for us. 

Solidscape 3D printers have empowered an entire industry such as jewelry to evolve not only the manufacturing capacity but also the design capabilities.  Jewelry customization is now possible at each level.  Whether you are a large manufacturer or a custom jeweler you have the freedom to design any custom piece you can design because manufacturing is easy and low cost.  Before design was limited by the ability to manufacture the parts, now you can manufacture everything you can design.

Design-to-parts historically was taking weeks, now it’s down to hours with a great ROI.  Investing in a Solidscape high precision 3D printers normally pays back in 6-9 months.

Customized jewelry is a huge untapped market. It's a powerful thing to give your sweetheart a piece of jewelry that's been customized just for them. A Solidscape 3D printer makes it it's easy to 3D print a special customized piece of jewelry that symbolizes the specialness of your loved one.

When you think about it it’s incredible.  We have gone to the jewelry industry that has been doing things by hand for more than  2000 years, thinking that doing it by hand was the only way possible, and transformed the way they make parts.  It's great to see people who use lost wax casting adopt a Solidscape 3D printer and see the way they optimize their workflow and make repeatable, high detail models. That’s what I consider the next industrial revolution that high precision 3D printing is driving.

What have you seen made from a Solidscape 3D printer that surprised you?

I have seen a lot of things that amazed me printed on Solidscape high precision 3D printers.  The industries that use our 3D printers are very secretive when it comes to custom designs. 

Nonetheless, one of the astonishing thing was a Sgian-Dubh, made as a wedding gift to Prince William and Kate, from a Scottish Kilt Manufacturer. They presented it with a new tartan design made especially for Prince William.  The design was to mimic a typical tartan design with crossing lines.  We printed it here at Solidscape, it was finished in the UK and I got to see it before it was delivered. The detail is mind blowing.

Another application is printing wax patterns to analyze brain aneurisms.  A research project conducted at ASU. 

Material science is something you must obsess over. Can you walk us through the material choices available for Solidscape users? 

I believe materials are the real strength of a Solidscape high precision 3D printer, you buy the printer because of the parts, but the materials allow your parts to be so much more through the casting process.  At Solidscape we have a two-material technology:

Our main build material for Solidscape high precision 3D printers is 100% castable.  Jewelers need to cast in precious metal and this requires the was patterns to have very smooth surface finish, very stable during the burn out cycle (no shrinkage to avoid cracking the investment) with 100% burn out to avoid hash or residues.  This is a MUST for the industry to make sure there is no waste of precious metal during manufacturing and no rework or post-processing at the end of the process.

Our support material dissolves easy.  When you design and manufacture very complex, intricate geometries, like jewelers do, you MUST make sure you can remove the support material easily. You cannot use tools to remove it because you could break the wax patterns, hence we developed a material that dissolves in an hot bath. Touch free!

Do you have any challenges for the Bold Machine team? What could we make that would blow the Solidscape community away?

Bold Machine has the uniqueness of leveraging the 3 best technologies in the 3D printing space.  One of the things that would blow away the Solidscape community is to discover how the combination of these 3 technologies can help a jeweler manufacture more creatively and productively across the whole production process.  E.g. Polyjet would be a great tool for concept modeling with the color possibilities allowing the jeweler to know exactly what he is going to produce while FDM opens a lot of opportunities to optimize the production processes with fixtures and jigs.  Basically, these three technologies combined can revolutionize an industry. Again!

Thanks Fabio, we are really enjoying using our Solidscape Max2 High Precision 3D Printer at Bold Machines. If you want to learn more, go forth and fill out this request for info and tell them Bold Machines sent you in the comment field and they'll take care of you.

An Interview with Jose Alves da Silva

When we started working on the Margo project, Robert immediately thought of Jose Alves da Silva

Jose Alves da Silva and his MakerBot Replicator 2

Jose has developed characters for the fields of advertising, games, and film. Most recently he has also been dedicated to creating collectible figures and model kits. He's done an amazing job of creating and 3D-modeling the characters for the Margo movie. We asked him to answer some questions for us: 

What inspired you to start doing 3D modeling work?

My 3D modeling days started back in 1992 during my Architecture degree. 3D was starting to be used in the simulation of architectural solutions with software like AutoCAD. Also pre-rendered 3D was starting to be used in video games using software like 3D Studio (DOS version) and Silicon Graphics. When I had the opportunity to use the first version of 3D Studio, I thought it would be great to use this tool, that was mainly used for games and film, but which had the capacity of rendering light, texture, and materials, in the simulation of architecture. That was how my first company was born.

Most of my first years in 3D were spent creating models of buildings, landscapes, and furniture for architectural visualization. The tools were far more limited than today's arsenal and it was not uncommon to have to build 3D objects face by face. With the evolution of hardware and software, 3D modeling evolved to a point in which you can sculpt millions of polygons interactively. Organic surfaces that were so hard to create in the past can now be created in an intuitive way as someone that approaches a block of clay or stone.

I always loved character creation and these new tools gave me the power to materialize my ideas into 3D models. With a background on hard surface modeling, I can now mix organic and non-organic modeling to get the best final result. And, things got even better with the arrival of 3D printers, allowing us to hold our creations in our hands! 

What was your workflow like, from start to finish to create Margo? How many prototypes did you make? What digital tools do you use?

Margo was the first character I designed to be printed with the Makerbot Replicator 2. I understood that one of the most important things to take into account with PLA printers is that the material has got to support itself during printing. At the beginning I had the idea that this could be limiting, but after making several characters I realized that there is a lot more freedom than one initially expects.

My objective was to not sacrifice design to the 3D printing technique, so I started by sketching the character in 2D trying to find its look and personality, not too worried about the 3D printing aspects of it. After receiving Makerbot's approval on the character sketch, I made some more drawings trying to create a pose which revealed the character's personality but also in which it was possible to divide the character into several seamless pieces that could be 3D printed.

Fig.01

For every body part I planned a side that was completely flat which would lay on the printing tray and tried to keep these flat planes hidden or at logical places like the belt line, for example. (Fig.01)

Fig.02

Using Zbrush, I started by sculpting the character in a T-pose (neutral pose) to benefit from the software's capability of replicating the sculpting with symmetry and speed up the process. This is my usual approach to create characters for games or film. The only different thing was that I was very careful to keep certain elements aligned so that they could be cut with straight lines and result in flat surfaces. For example, I made sure that the line that connects the hat to the hair was completely straight. Even though it is not very noticeable in the design it is extremely important to be able to print it. (Fig.02)

Fig.03

After having finished the model in a neutral pose, I started posing the character and re-sculpting some parts in order for the cloth folds to be coherent with the new pose. I tried not to refrain the creative aspects and see how far the design could be pushed, so I made this floating scarf on her neck. (Fig.03)

Fig.04

After having the final pose approved, I started cutting the model. In Zbrush, I fused the parts of the model that would be part of the same printed piece using Dynamesh, and sculpted the connections between parts mainly by using insert meshes and projection. Then I used the Decimation Master plugin to reduce the number of polygons and exported the parts to 3DS Max where I rotated the parts and laid them flat on the surface. (Fig.04)

Fig.05

The parts were then exported in STL format and imported into the Makerware printing software to print the parts on the Makerbot Replicator 2. (Fig.05)

Fortunately, the initial planning paid off and there weren't a lot of reprints to make the connections work properly.

What tricks did you use to make Margo come together without any support materials?

The main trick is to think 3-dimensionally and understand that the material is self supported.

If you're not using support materials, you will want to have a flat surface somewhere so that there is a good contact with the printing tray.

Also, you can take for granted that a 45 degree angle is safe for overhangs and you can even push it further to angles like 65 degrees.

Another trick is that you can create small bridges. If, during printing, the hot PLA goes from one support point to another that is quite near, the plastic filament won't fall and you are able to create a flat surface parallel to the printing tray that is not supported.

Fig.06

Rotate the 3d piece and find where a flat surface could exist. If it is not in an obvious place it will go unnoticed. For example, the floating ends of the scarf have a flat side but it not noticeable because it is not aligned to any reference. (Fig.06)

Try to think of the printing process as a growing tree and imagine it building from the ground up, if at some point the branches go horizontal or downwards, you have a design problem. After some time it becomes instinctive to design for 3d printing.

What advice do you have for someone who might just be beginning to learn 3D modeling?

3D modeling can be very rewarding and pleasurable. If you want to get started in 3D sculpting don't jump into Zbrush, you'll most probably find it a bit overwhelming and quit as the learning curve is a bit steep. Try using a software like Sculptris which has a limited set of tools but which is very easy to work with. After having some practice move to Zbrush, Mudbox or another sculpting software.

For hard surface modeling, if you're a beginner, consider trying Sketch up to get the hang of how 3D modeling works. It is simple and instinctive.  Start with these simpler software and you'll make sure that you won't bump into a technical wall that will prevent you from enjoying the creative process.

Thanks Jose, we look forward to continuing to work with you!

Jose Alves da Silva is a 3D character artist and illustrator. He has a degree in Architecture and co-founded the 3D visualization company Pura Imagem in 1996. Since 2009, after winning CGSociety's XXIV Challenge First Prize Master Award, he has been exclusively dedicated to creating characters. Expect to see more of the Margo characters right here on the Bold Machine's blog as we explore the frontier of character design and development with Stratasys, MakerBot and Solidscape 3D printers.