When desktop 3D printing hit the market a decade ago, the term “plug-and-play” was commonly bandied about to describe how user-friendly a particular machine was. Still, none of the original desktop systems were ever truly plug-and-play. You had to tinker with it, leveling the print bed and getting exactly the right settings for each model and material printed. From then to now, a company has continually improved its 3D printers to make them user-friendly, affordable, and most importantly, professional quality.
A spinout of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, Formlabs immediately differentiated itself from the world of desktop printers and industrial equipment by offering the best of both worlds: an industrial-grade device that hits your desk for a price of about $5,000 fits. Since blowing up Kickstarter about a decade ago, the company has become one of the few unicorns in the additive manufacturing space. Having never used a Formlabs 3D printer before, I’ve always wondered if these machines live up to the hype.
After unboxing and testing for several weeks the latest version of the company’s flagship stereolithography system (SLA), that question was answered. The Form 3+ proved to be a repeatable, high-quality 3D printer suitable for a range of environments, from desktop prototyping to final part manufacturing.
Setting up the Form 3+ 3D printer
Washing, mold curing and 3D printing resins and printing shells.Photo courtesy of the author.
Frankly, I was intimidated by the prospect of getting the Form 3+ up and running when a stack of boxes arrived on my doorstep. Setting up a 3D printer is typically a tedious process, even if it has a full-color touchscreen with step-by-step instructions. However, in this case there was virtually no facility. Once taken out of the box and plugged in, the Form 3+ was ready to use – literally plug and play.
Formlabs also sent additional equipment: the Form Wash and Form Cure units. Because SLA works with photosensitive resin, it is necessary to both rinse and then expose the printed parts to ultraviolet (UV) light so that they can reach a fully cured state. For a hobbyist, these machines aren’t entirely necessary, as it’s possible to simply wash items in isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and then leave them in the sun for a day. However, this is obviously not the ideal workflow nor is it sufficient for a professional environment.
Just like the printer itself, the Wash and Cure just had to be plugged in and it was ready to go.
3D printing on the Form 3+
Using the Form 3+ and preform software to prepare for printing is completely painless. Formlabs has spent a lot of time and energy making their technology the best possible user interface. When loading a 3D model into Preform, the software automatically determines its printability and, if it finds features that may not print correctly, offers to correct them. It then highlights areas where support structures are required for successful printing and offers to create them automatically.
easy to use, but offers additional complexity for advanced users.Image courtesy of the author.
Due to the limitations of my own CAD and engineering knowledge, I let Preform make most of the decisions for me. However, the software is sufficiently sophisticated for advanced users who do not want to keep all the printing parameters to themselves. Since everything is designed for large production environments, functions such as fleet control via the cloud were also available, as was the option to have the printer automatically eject a part for post-processing. Since I only tested the one printing unit, I did not test these features.
Photopolymers are typically dirty and toxic, but Formlabs has packaged these volatile materials in simple cartridges that can be inserted into the printer without the user coming into contact with the resins themselves. The Form 3+ automatically registers the loaded material and can adjust its settings accordingly.
Once the material and model are ready for use, the Form 3+ starts printing, allowing the user to monitor the print output remotely via a status bar in the cloud or directly on the printer itself. Unlike cheaper, more common filament melting machines, this SLA system never scared me with an incomplete print. No piles of plastic spaghetti. Every day when I inspected a job, I found a piece that was perfectly crafted.
Printing operations such as prototyping. The numerous supporting structures on the skull could be removed in a very short time and with very little effort.Image courtesy of the author.
Completed objects are removed from Form 3+. Either the individual parts or the entire print bed can be placed in the Form Wash system, which agitates the parts in a tub of rubbing alcohol for about 10 minutes before moving them into the Form Cure. There they are exposed to UV light for about an hour.
The Form Wash comes with a ton of accessories for editing the prints, including a metal spatula for removing printed parts from the build bed and scissors for removing supports. Formlabs recently introduced a special bed that almost eliminates the need for the spatula. When you press the handles on the device, the metal bed bends and the part pops out. The scissors are still required, but the support structures are optimized in preform so that they can be removed with minimal effort. I was blown away when I saw that removing these elements from a skull that took up almost the entire build volume of the printer took less than a minute.
Applications for the Form 3+ 3D printer
SLA is typically used for the very high resolution possible with the technology, which was clearly evident in the parts I created with the test unit. Formlabs’ SLA machines have become a mainstay of the dental, medical and jewelry industries, where printers’ attention to detail and precision are critical to printing items that are cast in metal or serve as clear surgical guides.
for a 3D printed camera.Image courtesy of the author.
Using the Durable, Clear, and Tough 2000 resins provided to me, I made a variety of objects that could utilize this high resolution in the real world. These included a tooth model that could be used to create an invisible aligner, as well as jewelry and an archaeological artifact.
With Halloween coming up, I decided to create a skull that would serve the dual purpose of demonstrating how this printer could be used for educational and archaeological applications and for making decorations. The model I printed was created from a 3D scan of a skull found at the Battle of Visby, where the Danes fought against Gutnish farmers on July 27, 1361.
The yellowish hue of the skull is likely due to the sheer density of the piece.Image courtesy of the author.
All of the pieces turned out phenomenally and I had no problems throughout the entire review process. This and the low cost make it not surprising that such large companies as HasbroHAS are using the Form 3 for the production of final parts, which is further optimized by Formlabs’ newer automation efforts.
The Form Auto streamlines 3D printing with the Form 3+ by autonomously releasing finished components from the build platform and starting subsequent prints, eliminating the need for manual intervention. Recently, similar automation was introduced to the company’s powder bed 3D printing technology, enabling automatic depowdering, cleaning and polishing of thermoplastic parts.
Types of resinsImage courtesy of the author.
Although it was a shame to have to return the Form 3+ to its makers after completing my review, it was helpful to know that there were many other devices out there that were helpful in the world of manufacturing at large.
I have been working with the additive manufacturing industry every day for a decade. After earning an MFA in Writing and Critical Studies from the California Institute for the Arts, I worked my way up from senior writer to editor-in-chief of a leading 3D printing news site before moving to an established tech news site. There I led the 3D printing news department while also writing about new technologies in CAD and engineering. Now, as Editor-in-Chief of 3DPrint.com, I am committed to ensuring that we continue to be the leading source of actionable information related to 3D printing technology and the larger AM industry. You can find out more about my work, 3D printing and other things on my website.
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