With 3D printing sweeping the creative world into a DIY frenzy of revolutionary proportions, there are a few of us that have been watching from a distance with a slightly skeptical perspective. Don’t get me wrong- 3D printing is nothing short of a revolution, and the technology is rapidly developing into something that is both usable and cost-effective for a whole variety of applications. But here’s the finer point that gets overlooked in many discussions.
“3D Printing” describes a myriad of processes and techniques- each with an extensive list of pros and cons. Cost, complexity, material properties, surface finish, and resolution are just a few of the factors that should be considered when comparing techniques. Product designers have been using these technologies for years, and are well aware of these pros and cons as well as when to use which process.
In the past few years, we’ve seen a number of fused deposition modelers (FDM) creep lower and lower in price as they became more widely known and available. While these machines are approaching the price tag of a single CAD workstation, most of these economically-minded machines do not (yet) produce parts with a resolution suitable for small part design. Nor are the FDM parts suited for machining or appearance-level finishing. Have you ever tried to paint an FDM model? Case in point.
The problem is- high-resolution SLA machines are tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and require professional installation and care. Materials and maintenance costs have typically dictated that the machine needs to be used often to pay for itself. All in all, it is a huge investment for a small company or firm.
Enter Formlabs- a spin-off from the MIT Media Lab- that is aiming to bring high-quality SLA models to the desktop. Not only is the resolution on par with professional systems, the price point is at or below most low-quality printers available today.
Formlab’s initial offering is called the Form 1, a diminutive desktop printer that looks like a cross between a blender and a Braun Turntable. With a build volume of 125 x 125 x 165 mm, the step size is 25 microns. After 7 generations of prototypes, the design has evolved from a science project to a manufacturable product. Formlabs is now seeking funding to take the machine into production.
Judging by the skyrocketing funding numbers on their Kickstarter page, they’ve hit a nerve in the design community. (About $150K was added to their funding in the time it took me to write this article) Personally, I’m pretty excited by this. I’ve been waiting 15 years for this to happen! SLA machines have always been just out of reach from a cost perspective.. and now that game is about to change.