Introduction and design
FormLabs is established as the leading manufacturer of Stereolithography (SLA) 3D printers. SLA printers use a resin rather than a filament that hardens when exposed to ultraviolet light.
Although the technology of the SLA printers is quite different to that used by fused filament modelling (FFM) printers, the basic principle – building layer upon layer to create the print – is the same.
At £3,120 (around $4,580, or AU$6,350), the Form 2’s price is at the top-end of the consumer market and the basic cost is almost double that of the high-end FFM printers such as the Ultimaker 2.
The design differences between an SLA and FFM printer are instantly obvious. The main build platform of an SLA printer is suspended over a resin tank so as the print is mapped out by the laser, the print is built bottom-down rather than bottom-up as with an FFM.
The whole process looks futuristic, as layer upon layer is being mapped by the laser and the laser’s path is set in the resin. As the print progresses and the build plate slowly lifts the print slowly emerges from the resin.
Unlike FFM printers that use infill to alter the amount of filament that is being used inside the solid parts of the print, an SLA printer will always print solid, and this ultimately makes the models stronger but does mean that more material is used.
On unboxing the printer the initial setup process is relatively straightforward. Compared with other SLA printers such as the XYZ Nobel 1.0 the design is more refined as there are no feed pipes between the resin tank or bottle that could lead to spillage.
The first item that needs to be installed is the resin tank and this simply clips into the base of the printer. It’s a good idea to have a tank for each resin that you use, although each additional tank is quite expensive at around £52 ($59 over in the US, which is around AU$82).
Once the resin tank is in place a small wiper is clipped onto the relevant part in the printer’s base. This wipes through the tank after each layer is built to ensure that the resin is evenly spread and helps prevent the build-up of solidified resin as the beam passes through the tank.
The tank itself sits over a glass panel beneath which is the laser. It’s important during the setup and when you switch tanks that the base isn’t touched as this could affect the beam and the quality of the print.
When you swap out the resin for another colour or type the tank can be quickly removed and comes with a loose fitting top that enables you to neatly store it away for later use.
Leaving a tank of resin for more than two months isn’t a good idea, and you also shouldn’t return the resin to the bottle after use as this can cause contamination.
The resin arrives ready to go in a specially shaped bottle that is dropped into the back of the printer. Once in place the resin automatically pours into the resin tank as the printer is primed before use.
The Form 2 is fully Wi-Fi compatible so when it comes to printing you have the choice of tethering the printer to your computer by means of a USB, network cable or via Wi-Fi.
Setting up the Wi-Fi connection using the small interface is quick and easy enough and once done you can send prints through to the printer from the software without the need to reconnect physically.
The software handles the majority of the printer’s settings and enables you to quickly select quality as well as the material type.
Materials and printing
Unlike the huge selection of materials available for FFM printers when it comes to resin there are far fewer options. However, the material types available for SLA are generally tailored for specific uses or have certain properties such as being flexible or tough.
This diversity of material type is in contrast to the huge variety of colours available with FFM filament and really does show that this printer is designed for use by businesses and high-end enthusiasts.
There is a standard resin type that is available in clear, black, grey and white. Other materials include those designed for casting, heavy use and even dental, not something you’d expect from a normal desktop 3D printer.
Commissioning the printer takes a good 20 minutes and once started it’s best to wait with the machine just to check that everything is in order. Due to the design there really is little to go wrong and if you do try to print on an uneven surface the printer will alert you to level it using the small adjustable feet on the base.
Initial test prints showed that even at its lowest setting the Form 2 is capable of prints that equal if not better the vast majority of FFM printers at their highest quality, with only the Zortrax M200 coming anywhere close.
Once the print completes it can then be removed from the build plate. Unlike an FFM printer the process of print removal is a little more involved and time consuming requiring the build plate to be removed, print extracted and then cleaned in IPA or Acetone before being washed and then left to cure.
The whole process from start to finish can take about 24 hours for the print to fully harden but the end result is well worth it.
Alongside the printer FormLabs also produces a finishing kit and if you’re thinking of investing it’s well worth paying out a little more for this set.
The finishing kit includes two washing basins, a series of tools and a handle for the build plate that can be used when removing the prints.
As with the vast majority of new printers the Form 2 arrives with its own software: PreForm. Initially this software looks much the same as any other, but as you start to use PreForm it becomes quickly apparent that this offering is on another level.
On importing a 3D model the software will instantly be able to tell if there are any issues with the model and then it repairs them automatically. In testing we found that the software did an incredible job eliminating intersecting faces and repairing those that are missing without issue.
Once the model is repaired and loaded into the software you can quickly prepare it for print and add supports. During the test we found that placing the model diagonally across the build plate produced the best results and also made the prints easier to remove when ready.
A single button at the base of the interface shows you what material will be used to print and at what quality – if you click this a simple interface opens enabling you to change the settings.
As you flip through each of the materials you’ll see that there are only a limited amount of options to ensure that you can only print within the tested limits of that material.
Then once you have selected the material and quality you can hit the print button. This will send the print across to the machine either through USB or Wi-Fi – then you’ll see the job appear on the printer itself. To print you need to click the option to confirm and the printer will warm up and print.
Print times are slower than an FFM printer, but only by about 10-20% depending on the model. The major time drain is the clean-up of the model afterwards.
There’s no doubt that the Form 2 is one of the best desktop 3D printers presently available. Build quality is excellent with good solid construction and careful attention to detail.
Small features such as the adjustable legs for levelling make life easier, and the design of the resin tank that slots directly into the back of the machine keeps everything very neat and tidy.
The interface on the Form 2 is extremely easy to use and connecting to your Wi-Fi or wired network is a straightforward simple process.
The bundled software might look simple but the powerful built-in tools ensure that you always get a decent print.
What really makes the Form 2 stand out is the incredible quality of prints. Printed at the highest quality setting and using standard resin, the prints produced showed far greater detail than any other printer we’ve seen.
The Form 2 is expensive both to buy and run costing more than double that of a good high-end FFM printer.
Depending on the type you use, resin also costs considerably more than filament and there is far less choice.
The more expensive resins also need a high level of skill to use properly. Unlike filament printers, SLA printers print solid, and this uses up more material again making it far more expensive.
The biggest downside of the Form 2 as with all SLA printers is the cleaning process once the print is finished. When carried out properly, this process can consume as much time as it takes for the print itself to be produced.
The Form 2 is designed for anyone needing a high-end 3D printing solution and is ideal for those needing to produce prototypes, small product runs or highly detailed quality models or jewellery designs.
The process of producing a print is far more time consuming, messy and expensive than an FFM printer, but the end results are exceptional.
The amount of resins presently available does limit you on colour but the specialist resins such as castable, tough and flexible open up a huge variety of possibilities.
Although the Form 2 is a desktop printer and is well priced enabling it to be purchased and used in the home, it’s really designed for the work, education or for the high-end enthusiast.
If you’re looking for the best possible finish and quality from a desktop 3D printer then at present there is nothing that comes close to the Form 2.
Also check out: Weren’t we supposed to have 3D printers everywhere by now?