Ever since I became interested in 3D printing, I have always wanted to have the Form 1… I succumbed to all the hype: the spectacular Kickstarter campaign, the modern design, which in 2012/13 nothing could compare to, and the incredible accuracy of the print layer, at 0,025 mm, with a price affordable for a mere mortal. Here was the 3D printer which prints with light-cured resin, which the home user can afford (at least in the USA and western Europe). When after a long delay The Form 1 finally went on sale, there was no end to the praises!
However, over time flies began to appear in the ointment… It transpired that not all the 3D printers from Formlabs printed equally well. There were problems with the quality of printing, tearing of the printouts during the 3D printing, or with defective pieces that required several service interventions (which was available only in the United States). Moreover – a two-year dispute with 3D Systems, which seemed to have no end. My enthusiasm for The Form 1 was gradually extinguished, and I indulged entirely in the low-budget FDM technology.
Well over two years have passed since my initial fascination with the device. The Formlabs reached an agreement with the 3D Systems, released a new generation of 3D printers – The Form 1+, opened a branch in Europe, which is now directed by the founder and the creator of the success of one of the largest 3D printer distributors on the Old Continent, Michael Sorkin, from iGo3D. All the initial excitement wore off, and at the end of August this year we finally decided to buy our own Form 1 +.
Before making the purchase, I had several conversations with people who either already used the 3D printer, or were knowledgeable in 3D printing with light-curing resins, to learn their opinion on the subject. The opinions were rather mixed… The key problem turned out to be the rather complex issue of maintaining the Form 1+ in a state of almost sterile cleanliness, the lack of which could affect the printing quality. In other words, even the slightest contamination – whether in the resin container, or on the mirror reflecting the laser light, and the resin would not be properly cured, resulting in a print defect.
We mulled over it for a few days, until my sentiment from the past finally prevailed… The Form 1+ got to us through iGo3D Poland, and we began our gradual induction into the SLA technology.
This text is not a review of the Form 1+. It is far too early for that… However, I decided to share some of my reflections with you, which I had after the first few weeks of using the 3D printer, as already at this stage some observations may seem quite important for people who contemplate buying the device. A time for a serious review will come later… Let’s say, in 2-3 months.
1. Unboxing, the Formlabs really did it right!
The Form 1+ comes in two boxes – the bigger one contains the 3D printer, and the smaller one – a set of post-processing tools. The device is boxed in a truly professional manner – although it is by definition a much more “fragile” construction than a typical low-budget FDM, the people responsible for logistics in Formlabs certainly rose to the occasion.
The post-processing kit is also very neatly packaged. It consists of:
- a plastic post-processing station
- two containers of isopropyl alcohol (we place them in two of the four slots in the station)
- a plastic sieve to bathe the prints in the containers
- a container with a tube for the isopropyl alcohol, which is useful for cleaning the leftover resin off the plate and the scraper
- two sponges, on which the prints will dry (we put them into the third slot in the station)
- a large scraper (which you may as well trash – more details below)
- pliers (I’ve had better…)
- a large bag with stylish, black, disposable gloves
- cleaning wipes for the casing and the mirror controlling the laser light (the latter are boxed in foil with a memo to use them only after prior telephone consultation with the Formlabs support).
Additionally, for the start you receive a liter of resin (you can choose the color when you make the purchase).
2. The things that you need to buy yourself.
The first basic thing without which no work should be started is the isopropyl alcohol. We purchased 5 liters of it and… we have already used more than half. It would not be a bad idea to order a 20-liter canister right away. The cost is relatively small (especially when you compare it to the other operating costs) and a greater amount will certainly come in handy.
A good scraper is the next thing. The one delivered by Formlabs, although pretty, is absolutely unsuitable for work with the device. It has a blunt tip, about 0.5 mm thick, and is devoid of any chamfering. Just touch the build plate, and beautiful, deep scratches appear on it. We use the super-sharp scraper given to us by Mirek Jaskułowski from Printilia – it is perfect.
Paper towels and disposable handkerchiefs are the third thing which must be always at hand. Since we are dealing with a light-cured resin, any tool that comes into contact with it must be cleaned rather quickly, as the resin hardens when exposed to UV light and would later be difficult to remove. The same applies to the build plate, which is immersed in the resin during printing, and also needs to be cleaned up quickly after the work is finished.
The fourth thing is a silicone spatula to remove (fish out) the failed print fragments from the bottom of the 3D printer’s resin container. In their videos, Formlabs does it with their scraper, but seeing it destroy the steel surface of the plate, I did not dare use it on the extremely delicate and sensitive surface of the container. It is not that easy to buy a silicone spatula. I settled for a cheap putty knife, used to apply grout, bought in one of the DIY stores – works perfectly!
3. The 3D printer installation and getting started, or, the Formlabs support are the world champions.
Working with light-cured resins, in comparison to the FDM, is just a whole new ball game. Your entire experience gained from printing with thermoplastics is meaningless – you have to really learn everything from scratch… Formlabs is acutely aware of the fact, which is why their support department is the most perfect on-line support I have ever seen. All the consecutive steps of getting started with the device are not only well described, but also illustrated with numerous animated GIFs which accurately present what we should do.
There is really no way to make a mistake – unless someone is just not cut out for this technology? Fortunately the awareness that we are working with a device worth several thousand puts the user in an appropriate state of heightened attention (at least it put me into one), and as long as you comply with the distinct and clear instructions, everything will proceed as it should.
In terms of usability the Form 1+ is maximally user friendly. When you turn the 3D printer on and raise the orange cover, you will not turn it off until it is not closed (unless you pull the plug from the socket). Before the start of the work, various messages appear on the display, ordering the performance of specific actions (for example, “make sure that the build platform is in place” or “make sure the container is filled with resin”).
When the 3D printer is connected and the software installed on your computer, you should pour the resin into the container. It has two lines the middle, which define the minimum and maximum level. There can be neither too little nor too much resin. In the latter case it may cause damage to the machine. When the build platform becomes immersed in resin it may cause it to overflow and flood the inside of the 3D printer. In such case Formlabs warns that it involves the loss of warranty.
The resin (at least the transparent one, which we are using for now) is odorless. It is not difficult to pour it, but you should have a paper towel on hand, to wipe the remnants the dripping resin. When the resin is in the container, close the cover and move on to the software where the printout is prepared.
4. The software, a BIG WOW!!!
The Formlabs software is just brilliant! I am so far unable to assess its real value in terms of the models slicing performance or supports generation, but in terms of usability it trumps even the excellent programs by Up! or Zortrax.
At the beginning the PreForm asks what resin you will print with (select it from the drop-down list) and at which layer height (0.025 / 0.05 / 0.1 / 0.2 mm). Then, move to the main screen.
All you need to do to start printing is to upload the project, orient it in relation to the platform (resin prints are printed at an angle of about 30º rather than vertically, as in the case of the FDM), generate supports, place it at an appropriate place on the platform (more details below) and press the orange START button.
If there are errors in the model, the PreForm asks if it should fix them. It may happen that after the repairs “some integrity issues” message can appear, related to the repaired errors, but I read on the Formlabs forum that you should not worry about it (whether it is right – time will tell…?).
The print orientation relative to the platform can be performed automatically or manually. It is one of the key aspects of 3D printing on the Form 1+ and, to be honest, I do not feel well versed in it yet. So far I only know that the automatic print orientation does not always work right.
It is similar with the automatic support generation – some experience is needed. It could hint that a given model would certainly get torn off the automatically generated supports in the middle of work, and that you should build more supports manually.
The last thing is the print orientation on the surface of the platform in the XY axes. The prints should not be always located in the same spot. Why? More details below…
5. The 3D Printing
Printing on the Form 1+ is boring… The platform moves down, immersing itself in the resin container and the laser hardens the consecutive layers of the model. Virtually nothing happens for the first hour or so… Now and then the plate rises and dips again, and lights keep flashing at the bottom. Over time, as the print emerges from the resin, it starts to look better, but… still there is nothing special about it. Perhaps only the SLS is more boring…?
The laser light cures the resin over the entire length. The first layer adheres to the build platform, and the subsequent ones to the previously printed layers. But at the same time, the resin adheres to the base of the resin container, so after each layer the platform is raised and the print is detached. This creates microcracks that damage the container’s coating. Therefore it is not recommended to constantly print in same spot, because after some time it will lose its nominal properties and the printout will fail to be cured well.
The software sends the file to the 3D printer via the USB cable. The printing begins even during the file transfer onto the micro-SD card, so you do not have to wait until the model consisting of thousands of layers will get uploaded in its entirety into the 3D printer’s memory. When the model file is sent, the Form 1+ may be disconnected from the computer.
After the print is finished, the platform goes up to the top. Open the 3D printer’s orange cover, put a separate cover on the container, and remove the build platform with the printout to start the post-processing.
6. The post-processing, where the real fun with resins begins…
In the low-budget 3D printing FDM technology, the post-processing usually consists in detaching the supports and grinding the edges. In the SLA it is a much more complex process. First… put the gloves on (actually you should be wearing them already when removing the platform from the 3D printer). It is not about the fact that the resin is caustic and may burn your hands (although some skin irritation may occur), only that if you are not careful enough you will get the resin all over your hands and then everything around.
Put the platform on the postprocessing station. Gently take off the printout from the platform with the scraper (no need to use force here, unlike in the case FDM) and put it into the first container with the isopropyl alcohol. Use the sieve to rinse the printout for about 2 minutes. Then take it out and put it on the sponge to dry for about 10 minutes. Then rinse again in the second container for a further 8 minutes, so that the entire process takes 20 minutes. After the second bath, take the print out to dry again and then begin to remove the supports.
The supports come off very easily, but you need to use a good pair of pliers (the original Formlabs pliers are rather not suitable for the job). When you cut them off, you should have protective eyewear, because the resin pieces can cannonball at supersonic speeds at totally random directions. When the supports are “peeled off”, there will be some micro traces left on its surface, in the spots where the supports were connected to the model. Formlabs presented a fantastic tutorial on how to remove them, but frankly, we have not reached that stage yet…
7. The first prints, or the “BIG WOW!!!” continues…
For the people accustomed to the quality offered by the low-budget FDMs the first prints on The Form 1+ come as a “real shock and disbelief”. Typically, the novice users start with simple, easy and small things (after all, this is resin!). Therefore, the end result is dazzling. We did the same thing. We even boasted of it on our FB profile:
8. Drowned in resin, or, the more you get into it, the more complicated it becomes.
Unfortunately, later on it becomes a little worse… When you’re done printing tiny figurines, watchmakers gears and all kinds of rings and signets, you start to crave for something large and/or complex. My first major printout was a specially designed “comb”, to sweep the resin in the container in search of contaminants (dust particles or the cured material debris). It came out fantastic, which was due to the well-designed supports (the design was already equipped with supports).
The next two large prints ended in failures… In both cases I generated the supports automatically, and in both cases the printouts got detached during the 3D printing and dropped into the resin. The next day, I had to detach the remains from the bottom of the container (the mentioned silicone spatula is quite useful for the job) and comb through the resin in search of dregs.
All this left the resin remaining in the container more or less contaminated with dust. Therefore, the following prints were no longer as flawless as in the beginning. The words of the experts, whom I consulted prior the purchase of The Form 1+, were confirmed at this point. The key to proper printing on this 3D printer is the ability to keep it perfectly clean.
9. After the first three weeks “I know that I know nothing”…
3D printing with light-curing resins is completely different from the FDM. It sounds like a truism, but it is impossible to do without such a reflection… After three weeks of working with the Form 1+ I see a number of independent factors which contribute to the success of a given project. A print may not work as it should because:
- the file you print is faulty or not suitable for 3D printing in this technology
- the model was not orientated correctly relative to the platform
- the supports were generated wrong (or there were too few of them)
- the resin was contaminated and in the spot where the object was to be cured a speck of dust appeared and prevented the curing
- the model transcends the technological capabilities of the Form 1+ (remember that in the end it is still a low-cost device).
The induction into the SLA technology takes many prints and many liters of resin. Although the device is easy to use, and it is a pleasure to work with it (even the post-processing is not so bothersome), when you start to realize more serious projects, there is a number of problems to solve. The ability to identify and deal with them requires extensive practice and experience…
Hence the decision not to evaluate the 3D printer at this stage, but to start a series of articles in which I will present our struggles with the Form 1+ and the SLA technology in general. It seems to me that this way, together, we will discover the true value of this device, and find an answer to the question whether 3D printing with light-curing resins is actually as amazing as it may seem based on the photos of selected printouts on the internet.
10. “Hidden” exploitation costs
Let us conclude with a few words about the real cost of the ownership of the Form 1+. I used the word “hidden”, although in fact they are clearly described on the Formlabs webpage. You just have to read through it all and understand the facts.
The 3D printer costs 4800$ gross (the price by iGo3D Poland), and the resins cost 176- 200$ gross per 1 liter (prices depend on the type). On top of that, add the cost of a resin container – approx. 100$ gross (Formlabs recommends replacing it every 2-3 liters (0.53 – 0.8 gallons) of used resin) and the loss of the material in the process of post-processing and during the 3D printer’s operation. What is the operation loss?
Apparently, before each print the resin must be “stirred” with a scraper, to make sure there are no remains of the cured material or other dirt in the container. The resin sticks to the scraper, so you have to wipe it off. This way some material is lost. A quantity which might suffice to print a smaller detail. The 3D printer’s build platform is also smeared with resin when the print is finished. This material is also removed. In this case, the material loss is even greater. This may be compared to the raft and the brim in the FDM technology, or to the extruded plastic when the filament is changed. The thing is that filaments cost 12-38 per 1 kg, and the resin of the Form 1+ – 176- 200$ per 1 liter…
Of course, it is not Formlabs’ clever way to force the users to make additional expenses. It is simply the peculiarity of this technology. With the professional 3D Systems printers it is even worse (more expensive). The SLA technology is not cheap, even if we pay relatively little money for the 3D printer. You need to keep that in mind if you wish to get started with the Form 1+ or any other 3D printer of this type.