A Massachusetts 3D printing company has opened a sales and service office in the Third Ward that is expected to grow to 150 employees over the next three years.
Formlabs, launched in 2011, has become the largest manufacturer of benchtop 3D printers. Its printers are used by companies such as manufacturers, healthcare systems, entertainment companies and others who use the printers for part and concept prototyping, rapid manufacturing and other applications.
In addition to its headquarters in Somerville, Massachusetts, Formlabs has offices in North Carolina, Berlin, Paris and Budapest. It employs around 800 people.
Luke Winston, the company’s chief commercial officer, said an office in Milwaukee was not the company’s priority when it began a nationwide search for a location that would bring it closer to customers in the Midwest and beyond.
“Honestly, Milwaukee wasn’t even at the top of this list originally,” Winston said. “But after visiting it the first time and learning that it was the original ‘machine shop of the world’, to have this awesome set of companies making things and also d ‘Having a bunch of schools like the Milwaukee School of Engineering…it just seemed like an awesome place that connects well with our mission.’
Attracted to Milwaukee’s talent pool
In Milwaukee, he said, the company believes it’s found more than a customer-friendly location — it’s landed in a place where there’s a growing pool of technical, engineering, sales employees. and marketing, not just from MSOE, where the company has hosted events in the past, but also outgoing students from Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The floor and a half of open-plan office space with a rooftop terrace the company found on the upper floors of 220 E. Buffalo St. also made a difference, he said.
“We have this kind of really industrial old industrial space in Boston that was turned into our office and it was pretty cool to see that in the Third Ward,” he said. “I love this whole area and I’m really excited about the office. I think I’m a little jealous of it too. It’s a really, really cool build that I think combines both the old industrial and the modern.”
The space, a glass and steel addition that faces North Water Street, was built in 2017 for digital measurementsa higher education software company that exited after it was acquired by New York-based Watermark.
About 20 people have worked in the 20,000 square foot space since early August.
3D printing starts with a prototype
3D printing is a subset of what is called additive manufacturing. The basic premise is to build an object, say a prototype for a new climbing helmet, by printing layer upon layer of material to build the helmet from the base up.
The creation of prototypes for new products has been the daily bread of the industry since its inception. This at one time required large, complicated machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Formlabs, as a leading manufacturer of professional benchtop printers and printing hardware, sees itself as a “disruptor” that aims to make 3D printing affordable, easy to use and widely accessible, Winston said.
The company’s printers start at under $4,000. More than 100,000 have been sold so far, according to a press release.
Founded by a handful of MIT graduates, Formlabs launched its first professional-grade desktop printer in 2012 and brought it to market with a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $3 million. Since then, it has rolled out larger, more specialized printers, including one that prints dental crowns and permanent dentures.
Printers can be used individually or in “print farms”, banks of printers capable of producing large numbers of parts or products.
New and advanced uses include:
- When COVID-19 test swabs were scarce at the height of the pandemic, hospitals and health systems, government agencies and a medical device manufacturer worked with the company to print millions of swabs.
- New Balance uses Formlabs printers to make an elastic insole cushion using a new material developed by Formlabs for a line of running shoes.
- Hasbro and Formlabs recently announced a partnership to create Hasbro’s “Selfie Series” of customizable figurines that allow customers to put their own faces on 3D superhero models.
- Gilette partners with Formlabs to produce bespoke razor handles.
Last year, the company raised $150 million in Series E funding led by SoftBank, bringing Formabs’ valuation to $2 billion. Series E funding is often a precursor to becoming a publicly traded company.
State funds help with the move
Formlabs receives state assistance for setting up the Milwaukee office in the form of a state tax credit of up to $675,000. The credits are tied to the company growing its Wisconsin workforce to more than 100 people in three years.
“It’s a perfect match: Wisconsin is recognized worldwide as a leader in advanced manufacturing and technology innovation, and Formlabs is recognized as the leader in 3D printing,” said Sam Rikkers, assistant secretary of Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
Jeff Fleming, spokesman for Mayor Cavalier Johnson, said Formlabs’ decision to open an office in Milwaukee continues “Milwaukee’s tradition” of manufacturing innovation, while highlighting the city’s success to position itself to attract next-generation technology companies.
“It’s precisely this kind of economic development, economic engagement that Milwaukee needs to move forward,” Fleming said.