At 3D Printing UK we tend to focus on Fused Deposition Modelling 3D printers, including our very own Ender 3, but we do keep an eye on other technologies too. So we were interested to see that Anycubic have announced an affordable new DLP printer that’s being offered on Kickstarter right now.
Yes, we know; there are plenty affordable 3D printers these days. Most of them are FDM models, but there are also quite a few that print using light and liquid resin. So far these have all been Masked Stereolithography (MSLA) devices; that’s about to change, though. The new Anycubic Photon Ultra uses Digital Light Processing.
So What’s The Difference?
Like MSLA, DLP printers use ultraviolet light to harden resin. They use very different technologies, though. MSLA printers have a grid of LCD cells that act as a mask to selectively block light. Where a cell is clear, light can get through and harden the resin; if the cell is opaque, the light is blocked and the resin stays liquid. The mask reconfigures for each layer, letting the printer translate the slicer’s commands into a finished model. This is a relatively cheap technology and it works well, but like everything else in life it isn’t perfect.
DLP printers have a completely different way of handling the light. Instead of a light source that covers the whole build plate, and has to be masked from areas you don’t want printed, the light comes from a single source and is precisely focused with a mirror – in fact, an array of thousands of tiny mirrors mounted on a control chip. These can concentrate the light source with very high accuracy, which gives excellent print quality.
The problem with DLP is that, generally, this print quality comes at a price. That’s made it the standard option for dentists and other professions that need to make very precise, durable prints, but it’s been out of reach of hobbyists. That’s about to change, though.
The Photon Ultra DLP printer looks like it’s going to sell for around $499, or whatever that translates into in pounds. That puts it in the upper half of the “affordable” 3D printer market and around twice as much as some MSLA models, but it’s much cheaper than any previous DLP printer. That’s because Anycubic have partnered with Texas Instruments, who produce a small, economical mirror array that can still print at resolutions of down to 720dpi. Because of how the technology works, that gives better results that a MSLA 3D printer at 4k resolution – and those aren’t affordable.
There are some other advantages to DLP printers, too. The Photon Ultra can print a layer in just 1.5 seconds, which is impressive, and it’s also more affordable in the long term than an MSLA printer. That’s because the LCD screens in a MSLA one only last for around 2,000 hours of print time, and in an affordable printer it often isn’t cost-effective to replace them. Anycubic say the Photon Ultra’s mirror array is good for at least ten times as long.
Of course it’s not all upsides. The one real downside of a DLP printer is that they’re best at small prints. If the points it’s illuminating are far apart on the print bed, accuracy starts to fall off. For small prints, though – or at least prints that are small in the X and Y axes – the quality is pretty much unbeatable.
It’ll probably be a few months before the Photon Ultra starts to appear in the UK market, but when it does it’ll be an interesting new option. We’ll keep you updated as we hear more!