From a niche start,
3D printing is rapidly becoming mainstream. With the way prices are going it’s soon going to be feasible for anybody who wants one to have an entry level printer at home – and, unlike earlier models which are very much aimed at hobbyists, it should be user friendly too.
On the down side, most affordable printers use fused filament fabrication. This is pretty economical and uncomplicated, but lower priced printers often have resolution and warping issues – the print quality won’t be outstanding. This probably doesn’t matter for most people, who want to create simple objects or teach themselves about the technology, but if you’re prototyping the quality won’t be up to what you need. To print for professional use you’re generally going to have to spend a lot more than an entry level printer costs.
If you are looking to spend a couple of thousand or more on a printer a lot more options open up, including different print technologies. It’s fair to say that, right now, none of the print technologies is absolutely perfect; they all have their strengths and one or two things they’re not so strong on. If you want outstanding print quality, though, stereolithography is a strong candidate – and one of the best semi-professional stereolithography printers on the market right now is the Form 2 from Formlabs.
The Form 2 is not something most hobbyists are going to splash out on – it costs close to $3,500, and resin refills start at $150. Of course you do get what you pay for, and this printer delivers everything you’d expect for the price – and quite a bit more.
When you unpack the Form 2 you’ll find it’s already pretty much ready to go. The main structure is pre-assembled, and consists of a solid steel base with a distinctive transparent orange cover over the print area. All you have to do is slide the cover up on its pillar, install the resin tank, mount the print platform on top of it and load the resin cartridge that’s included with the kit.
Delivering print files to the Form 2 is easy. It has loads of connectivity options – a USB cable, ethernet port and wifi – and there’s a big, clear touchscreen to control it all with. The actual printing happens upside down. The print platform is lowered into the resin tank, and a UV laser below the tank shining up through the transparent base hardens selected areas. As the job prints the platform is slowly raised – very slowly; this isn’t a fast printer – and the job is gradually listed out of the tank. Unlike a lot of simpler stereolithography printers the cartridge automatically refills the tank as resin is used up, so it’s always at the correct level for optimum print quality.
There are different grades and colours of resin available for the Form 2. As well as the standard variety there are engineering resins, which give a tougher, more durable print, and jewellery ones that give extremely precise detail and can be used to make metal-casting moulds straight from the print. Dental resins can be used to create guides and retainers, or models of crowns and bridgework. Formlabs are even working on ceramic-loaded resins that can be fired in a kiln after printing, to create pure ceramic parts.
As we mentioned, the Form 2 is not a fast printer. Even a small job will take a few hours, and larger ones can run for a day or more. The payback for that is excellent print quality, with layers as thin as 25 microns and a laser spot size of 140 microns. The print volume is 145x145x175mm. One thing to keep in mind is that the finished prints will be fairly sticky until they’re cleaned with alcohol – but Formlabs include a full cleaning kit with the printer.
The Form 2 is an expensive piece of kit, but its print quality and ability to work with specialist materials make it an excellent choice for a variety of professionals. If you need a precision printer, this one deserves a closer look.