Innovation

Stratasys re-energizes 3D printing with push-button J750 that prints 360,000 colors

The 3D printing pioneer has created a new high-end machine that can mix more materials and colors in a single print than any previous technologies. Learn why it's a breakthrough.

Items printed with the Stratasys J750
These items printed with the Stratasys J750 show off its color capabilities.
Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

OtterBox has been using 3D printing to help design its tank-like phone cases for over a decade. But, the biggest leap forward in its rapid prototyping process happened in the past six months. A prototype of one of its multi-colored cases used to take 3 days to print, paint, and finish. Now, it takes 30 minutes with the Stratasys J750, which OtterBox has been beta testing since last fall.

As of Monday, any company can now take advantage of this technology to shorten its product development lifecycle. The J750 is available from Stratasys today and can be ordered from its website. Delivery times will vary based on geography.

To get the exact cost of a J750, you'll have connect with Stratasys to get the specifics for your company and region, but you're typically looking at a price tag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for an industrial-strength rapid prototyping machine like this one.

Stratasys is also the company that owns MakerBot—the manufacturer of the world's most well-known desktop 3D printers—and we can expect that advances in high-end "additive manufacturing" will also trickle down to consumer 3D printers eventually. My ZDNet colleague Larry Dignan analyzes what the J750 means for the 3D printing market.

The reason that the J750 represents such a breakthrough in 3D printing is that it can print 360,000 colors and a combination of 6 different materials. While there are 3D printers that can now print metal, wood, and even human cells, the J750 remains focused on combining a variety of different plastics to help manufacturers produce prototypes and parts.

SEE: Photos: New Stratasys 3D printer can make 360,000 colors on 6 materials

By combining multiple materials into its prints, the J750 can achieve a lot of different strengths, textures, and opacities. And, the ability to print so many color combinations without having to change the printer's configuration has surpassed anything else that has hit the market so far.

It's a game changer. And, it has industrial designers drooling.

On the first day that the beta version of the J750 arrived at OtterBox last year, the team quickly printed one of their in-progress iPhone cases—just to see how it would look. The reaction was, "Whoa, this looks just like our final part," said Brycen Smith, engineering technician supervisor.

For fun, they sent it to their testers to see how well the color matched to the company's standards for the final product. "It was within our manufacturing tolerances," said Smith.

"The day we got it in, one of our product development directors said, 'Can we get 2?" he added.

Even though OtterBox already had an Objet Connex 3D printer—the line the J750 supersedes—the J750 immediately became the favorite of OtterBox designers and engineers, who print 750-1000 prototype parts per week.

Reducing steps in product development and printing a part that so closely resembles the final product can "compress and de-risk`" the process of bringing a product to market, said Josh Claman, chief business officer of Stratasys.

For OtterBox, which now relies heavily on a production model of the J750, the timing couldn't have been better as it tries to maintain its leadership position in the hypercompetitive phone case market.

"Without the J750 we'd be in a world of hurt," said Smith. "It's a huge cost savings. I couldn't even quantify it yet."

OtterBox's Brycen Smith and Stratasys J750
OtterBox's Brycen Smith demonstrates the company's Stratasys J750.
Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

Stratasys wouldn't specify how many companies were in its beta program for the J750, but one of the other prominent early adopters was Laiki Entertainment, the stop motion animation company founded by Nike chairman Phil Knight. The company's 2009 film Coraline was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and it's using 3D printing to print out characters from its films in the same way a 2D artist draws each frame of a cartoon. The company's fifth animated feature will be released in the next several years and it will be printed entirely on the J750.

"We've simplified their entire business with this product," said Claman.

Nevertheless, most of the Stratasys J750 customers will be manufacturers, service bureaus, and product design departments. Despite all of the recent hype about 3D printers' destiny to replace manufacturing, for the short term most of the sales of the J750 and other products like it will be for rapid prototyping to enable manufacturing and not disrupt it.

The other main use for the J750 will be quickly making jigs, fixtures, and parts for machines on the manufacturing floor. The third use of this technology—highly publicized but much less common—will be printing production parts like the 1,000 3D printed parts in the Airbus A350 AWB or the jet engine fuel nozzle that used to be made out of 20 parts but GE now 3D prints as a single part.

SEE: 3D printing: The smart person's guide

But, Stratasys' ambitions for the J750 aren't limited to the customers who are already sold on 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

"We see this as a groundbreaking capability in technology that [reaches] the standard of what people always wanted 3D printing to do. They want it to be push button. They want it to be easy to adopt," said Roger Kelesoglu, director of global sales enablement at Stratasys. "[The J750] is not just for the customers out there who will buy every latest technology, who have been in 3D printing for a long time and know why it's good for them. It's the next round of people who are going to say, 'This product is the one I've been waiting for.'"

To help those approaching 3D printing and additive manufacturing for the first time, Stratasys also launched PolyJet Studio software with the J750. The new software, along with Stratasys' partnership with Adobe, wants to help make 3D printing accessible to more than just CAD experts. This is a challenge that HP also identified when it announced it will be entering the 3D printing market (in the second half of 2016). This will be critical in opening the door to the 49% of companies, according to Tech Pro Research, that are still considering how to take advantage of this technology.

According to Stratasys, the leading types of organizations and businesses that will benefit from the J750 include:

  • Consumer product companies
  • Service bureaus
  • Design firms
  • K-12 education
  • Universities and research institutions
  • Medical device companies
  • Hospitals
  • Medical schools
  • Special effects and animation companies

But, Stratasys also knows that when this new capability gets used by some of the most creative people in business, they're going to do unpredictable things with it.

"It's going to be amazing to come back after 6 months once this has been in the hands of great designers," said Kelesoglu. "They're going to do things with this machine that we can't imagine."

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About Jason Hiner

Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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