Day 1 with the Formlabs Form 1+ 3D Printer
About two months ago I was very, very fortunate to win a Formlabs Form 1+ 3D printer from the Formlabs Contest on Instructables.com. It took a little while for all the pieces of the printer to arrive (the printer ships in three parts: the Form 1+ 3D printer itself, the Form Finish Kit, and the Formlabs resin), but now that I have the printer up and running, I wanted to document my first day working with the amazing Form 1+.
What is the Form 1+?
The Form 1+ is quite a bit different from almost all other desktop 3D printers, in terms of its technology. The Form 1+ uses stereolithography rather than fused filament fabrication (FFF). Instead of taking a plastic filament, melting it, and pushing it through a little hole onto the build platform like most desktop 3D printers do, the Form 1+ uses a light-sensitive resin, which it uses a laser to harden and build models.
There are a couple of fantastic benefits to stereolithography, used by theForm 1+, over FFF, used by almost all other 3D printers, but there are also some drawbacks.
Using theForm 1 +
The Form 1+ uses Formlabs’ own PreForm software. I am no expert on 3D printer host software, but I do have experience with two of the most popular software packages: Repetier-Host and Cura. In terms of usability, PreForm is miles ahead of these software packages for a number of reasons. However, it must first be said, PreForm is made for a different audience than either Repetier-Host or Cura. These latter two software packages are built more for tinkerers. They contain extensive and comprehensive options for fine-tuning almost every aspect of 3D printing performance. This is great for people building their own 3D printers or using commercially-available kits to be assembled.
PreForm, on the other hand, is much more of a prosumer product. There are a grand total of five buttons in the main part of the PreForm UI. Most of the tasks to be performed with the software are automated. PreForm will automatically place the part in an optimal orientation, it will automatically generate support structures, it will automatically arrange multiple prints, and it will automatically try to place parts in an area of the build platform not used by other prints to extend the life of the build platform and resin tank. Unless you really want to, it is not necessary to do any tweaking at all with PreForm and the Form 1+. You can easily just load a model and hit go.
The Printing Process
As mentioned above, the Form 1+ is a stereolithographic 3D printer; it uses a high-power laser, which it shines into a tank of light-sensitive resin, to build parts. The actual print process consists of three repeating steps:
- Use the laser to harden one layer of resin on the build platform.
- Perform a “peeling” operation: between each printed layer, the Form 1+ will perform a “peeling” operation. This step is unique to stereolithographic 3D printers. The machine tips the resin tank by a few degrees to un-stick the most recently printed layer from the bottom of the resin tank. The purpose of this step is to make sure the model sticks to the build platform, not the resin tank.
- Move the build platform up by one layer thickness.
In the fast-motion video above, you can see the unique second step of the printing process, the “peeling” operation as the resin tank on the bottom of the machine wiggling up and down. This operation literally peels the most recently printed layer off the bottom of the resin tank.
Now, one thing about the Form 1+ is that it is not fast by any means. The simple printed model in the PreForm screenshot above took one hour, 6 minutes to print. But, unlike with many other 3D printers, the exceptional quality of the Form 1+, and the fact that it does not use any heat to print, means you can safely leave it alone overnight to finish a large print if necessary. Plus it would not even be too disruptive because the machine is not too loud at all.
There is one more significant downside to printing with the Form 1+ though, and that is the resin. The custom-formulated, specialized resin used by the 3D printer is much more expensive, per unit of volume, than the 3D printer filament used by FFF machines. The resin costs $150 per liter.So, the part pictured below, a servo bracket I printed for a robot I was building, used about $5.50 worth of resin. Therefore, the Form 1+ is probably not the most economical machine for playing around and experimenting with 3D printing.
Just one more detail, which you probably noticed in the above images, support material. Support material is not unique to stereolithographic 3D printing, but it is much more important for stereolithography than it is for FFF. This is especially true because, in order for the Form 1+ to perform its best, the PreForm software tries to minimize horizontal surfaces in the print. That’s why the above prints are placed at funny angles. Luckily, the PreForm software will generate support structures automatically.
Finishing Parts, Post-Print Operations
The last thing about using the Form 1+ is that you will have a bit of extra work to do after the printing operation has finished. Since, during the printing process, the part emerges from a pool of resin, you will need to clean the excess resin off the part after printing has concluded. The Form 1+ comes with the Form Finish Kit, which consists of a very nicely made tray which holds the build platform, two tanks of isopropyl alcohol, some absorbent pads, and some tools. Finishing prints is quite easy, and is covered in detail by the Form 1+ documentation. Basically, you detach the part from the build platform, wash it in alcohol for a while, let it dry and finishing curing in the sun, and then cut off the support structures.
And then, after doing all your post-print work, the printed models can be painted or machined.
If you are interested in a 3D printer that offers fantastic print quality, and requires almost no setup whatsoever, the Form 1+ is a great choice. At $3299 for the machine, and $150 per liter of resin, plus the cost of occasionally replacing the build platform and resin tanks, the Form 1+ is certainly not cheap. But if you are a professional Maker, it really is difficult to beat. It took me literally five minutes from the time I had the printer unpacked to when I had my first print underway. It took me longer to take the machine out of the box than it took be to set it up.
I have always been interested in 3D printing because I love the idea of bringing a digital design seamlessly to life before one’s eyes. The outstanding quality and capabilities of the Form 1+ really does make this vision a possibility; and, in fact, it makes it quite easy.