An Affordable, Professional 3D Printer
The Precision of Stereolithography right on Your Desktop. The Form 1 marries high-end stereolithography (SL) technology and a seamless user experience at a price affordable to the professional designer, engineer and maker. An end-to-end package. Printer, software, and post-processing kit that just works. Right out of the box.
Form 1: Real SL Technology
3D printed parts are only as good as the technology that made them. Stereolithography (SL) is the gold standard for 3D print resolution and surface finish. In this photopolymer-based process, a high precision system directs a laser across a tray of liquid resin and causes a thin layer to solidify. The build platform then rises in preparation for the next layer. After thousands of repetitions, your part is complete with exquisite detail.
Specially formulated in-house to deliver the highest quality output, Form 1 resin delivers functional performance without sacrificing the finished look:
Professional Finish. Surface finish rivals the quality of high end industrial printers.
Ultra-Fine Details. Photopolymer resin allows for fine details with laser precision.
Versatile Color. Matte gray color is great for look-and-feel models, standalone parts, or even as a base color for painting.
Easily import your .STL files and make them real:
Support Structures. Smart support structures ensure structural integrity during printing.
Auto-Layout. Autolayout conveniently optimizes piece location prior to printing.
Edit Tools. Rotation, scaling, and duplication tools give you precise control over your print jobs.
Form Finish Kit
With any 3D printing process, there are key finishing steps to get the print into its final and ready-to-use form. Formlabs has designed the Form Finish kit - a finishing tray and accessories package to help keep your workspace clean and organized while quickly putting the finishing touches on your masterpiece.
September 30, 2013 by Josh Goldman Neutral
For over 35 years, I’ve considered myself an electronics hobbyist. As I grew older that moniker became “early adopter” as I had less and less time to build, dissect, and assemble things and more disposable income to buy the earliest versions of leading edge electronics in order to satisfy my technolust. 3-D printing has been something I’ve tracked and investigated as an investor and technologist, and I’ve long craved having one of my own with which to truly explore its capabilities. So I worked hard to rally friends and colleagues to help me test the remarkable Form1 3D Printer from FormLabs on the Fresh consumer review service.
At the end of my trial period now, I can report that the printer gave me moments of astonishment, hours of fascination, occasional schoolboy-like squeals of joy, and ultimately quite a lot of hours of frustration and a bit of disappointment.
First, the unboxing and setup of the printer went very smoothly, and when the printer was out of the box for the first time, I was was struck by the beauty of the device. The Form1 has been built by people who intend it to be regarded as an elegant product, not the toy-like appearance of many of the other printers on the market today. The Form1 has a truly great build quality, elegant finishes, and attention to detail throughout.
Setup of the device itself was a breeze, or at least it would be if this had been a brand new printer and not one that had already been to other reviewers and journalists first. (I had a couple of missing and damaged parts that were due to carelessness of the prior tester and NOT due to any fault of FormLabs themselves.)
Once the printer was set up and powered on, it booted up fast, displayed its logo on its elegant small screen and happily reported “Ready to Print”. After connecting the USB cable to my Mac and installing the software, I was ready to get started.
And this is where you start to get a sense that despite the quality of the machine, we’re still very much in the “hobbyist” phase of 3D printing. If you’re expecting something akin to even the earliest laser printers, where you set it up, install the print “cartridges” or material, and send it a file to be printed from your computer, well, we’re not quite there yet with 3D printing. Prints require quite a bit of setup beforehand and a LOT of manual finishing afterwards before you can pass around your object and amaze your friends and family.
The Form1 uses stereolithography as its print mechanism, and that means it’s actually printing objects in liquid (or gel may be a better description). It has a motorized build platform that holds the object as it is created, and the platform is suspended in a tray of thick, gooey polymer resin. A laser in the printer races across the build platform, curing tiny layers of resin where the laser strikes the resin. Then the build platform rises a tiny amount, and the laser hits the next layer of resin at the right spots to build up the item (upside down, rising upwards out of the liquid resin) layer by layer.
Now, when this all goes well, it’s absolutely magical and astounding to watch. For the most dramatic effect, have the lights off once it gets started, and you’ll be be treated to a remarkable laser-light show as the laser races around the resin tank creating each layer. You’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the show… printing even a small object at low- or medium-resolution takes 2-4 hours to complete, and larger, more complex item, or items requiring higher resolution settings, can take as much as 14-18 hours to complete. Our whole family thought it was incredible to watch, though we were surprised at how long even a small item could take.
Once you’ve printed the little butterfly clip that comes as the demo file with the printer, you’ll want to create or download more interesting files to try. (I’m surprised and disappointed that FormLabs doesn’t give a reasonable collection of well-made demo files for new users.) I’m not someone who is very familiar with CAD software, but I can mess around with Google Sketchup and eventually make it do simple things I want. And of course there are libraries and websites of items you can download for printing, some for free, but most require a fee. With either of these processes, you can get yourself some object files to print, but you also get another reminder of the hobbyist stage we’re in. There isn’t yet a universal language or format like Postscript or PCL for these files and printers. If you’re using the included PreForm software, which is quite easy to use and well made, it requires files in .STL or .FORM format. You’ll occasionally find .STL files on the online 3D library sites, but more often than not you’ll find you have to convert files from other CAD or 3D printing formats. Even if you do find and download .STL files, the PreForm software almost always gives a message of “File damaged, would you like to try to repair the file?” before it does seem to open them. It never reports what needed fixing or if it was successful, but the files do eventually open. It will also almost invariably complain that the units in the file were wrong and need adjusting, though after you clear the warnings, the files seem to be displayed just fine. If the format of your files isn’t STL, FormLabs doesn’t supply any other converters, though I was able to find some online. If instead you choose to use something like Google Sketchup you’ll find it’s easy to use but NOT easy to print to a FormOne. It can export to 8 different formats but NOT .STL or .FORM. I found some conversion plug-ins that added menu items to Sketchup to “export to .STL”, but again, I was back in the world of hobbyist tinkering, not consumer-ready printing.
And as for the printing itself, I had mixed results. Some models came out nice and clean the first time, but many came out deformed or broken. You quickly learn that this type of printing requires the software to add physical “supports” to parts of most models… little sticks to hold up parts of the print that would otherwise fall over during the build process. Once the print is done, you break off the printed support columns that were added and you have your item. Theoretically. In practice, many items I tried to print didn’t work well with the default supports recommended by the PreForm software, so items still ended up deformed or broken until I found ways to adjust the supports settings to make stronger supports or adjust the distance between supports. Each test print of the new settings of course required 7-10 hours of printing before you can even tell if your new settings are working. So it can be frustrating and slow. It is NOT as simple as finding a cool file online, downloading it, and sending the file to the printer. Not yet. We don’t yet have 3D PDF files, or some equivalent, that just universally will work regardless of your output hardware.
OK, so… if you managed to get a file you liked, download it, convert it to the proper format, add the required support columns in PreForm, print it successfully without it warping or breaking in the printing process, THEN you have the last item – getting it off the print platform. You have to pry it off the metal platform with a (supplied) putty knife or some other tools. Sounds easier than it is. It is REALLY stuck on the platform and the cured resin is quite hard. Even getting the knife under the bottom layer of resin is difficult, and about half the time I ended up breaking the item just trying to remove it from the print platform. (If you think I just wasn’t coordinated or didn’t follow the instructions, check out this lively forum discussion with users giving each other tips on how to get the prints off the build platform: https://formlabs.zendesk.com/entries/24471611-What-tricks-do-you-use-to-remove-print-from-build-platform-)
So there are a lot of things to get right, a lot of steps to follow, and a lot of wasted prints, lost material, lost time, and messy steps to go through to get a successful print, at least for a relative novice like me. I’m sure I’d have a much higher success ratio with more experience and more tinkering with the unit. But users need to be prepared for this long learning process and a lot of frustration. FormLabs has done a great job in so many aspects, but the software still needs work and the process involves a lot of time and experimentation.
There’s one other important thing for prospective owners to know. This process is messy, sticky, and smelly. The resin tank must be kept filled (quite easy), but then when an item is finished, the cured resin is quite sticky and there’s a lot of uncured resin on the build platform. You unclip the build platform, flip it over, put it into a special holder that comes with the device, and then begin trying to get your object off the metal platform. You’ll need gloves. The resin smells pretty bad, and you need a nearby bucket of (flammable) isopropyl alcohol to drop your item in to clean off the uncured resin. Then you have to wash off the build platform, your knives, tools, etc. And it seems no matter how careful you are, there’s resin dripping on the desk or table, on the supplied drying platform, and on other surfaces and it’s very difficult to clean up. My wife was soon insisting the whole thing be out in the garage rather than in our home office where we wanted it. She was right to force this change… the smell and mess became really challenging for us, even if we were very careful. The workbench and surfaces all became sticky and the smell (from both the resin and the alcohol) takes a good day to dissipate after a print and a “finishing” process.
In the end, we made some neat objects and our amazement at watching the laser race across the build platform and seeing a physical object emerge never waned. But I don’t think this process and product are yet ready for the average family to bring one home to let little Billy and Sally start to print things they want or need. It’s messy, slow, and can be difficult and frustrating as you wrestle with the software, the build settings, and the materials. The messiness of the materials is probably the biggest barrier. It may work well in schools if there are students or staff to take care of all the materials and clean up properly, and of course it will work well in light commercial settings with the same caveats. And yes, there are plenty of tinkerer and hobbyist homes that will welcome the Form1 and get a lot of enjoyment from it and make some amazing things. But those families need to be prepared for the mess, smell, clean-up process, materials cost, and time to learn how to master the settings for each particular type of build to get it to work right. We’re nowhere near close to what it’s like to buy an ink-jet printer, even those that require some regular cleaning and new cartridges installed. The Form1 requires a LOT more care and effort, but of course that’s what is required to be an early adopter and to be among the first to have a machine at home that can create physical objects on demand. It’s magic, but for now it’s very messy magic.