As the personal 3D printer market has seen an influx of new companies and printers in the last year, perhaps none is as intriguing as the Form 1 by Formlabs. Form 1 is, as far as we can tell, the first 3D printer to bring the stereolithography printing process into sub $4,000 dollar range. Form 1’s unique printing process makes gives a different look to what is possible in the realm of a “desktop 3D printer”, and could have serious implications in the industry.

Firstly to clarify, SmarTech defines personal 3D printers as the class of 3D printers that are priced in the under $3,000 range. Although recently introduced models are pushing the price point down to the sub $1,000 range, we tend to take these printers less seriously, as they seem more like toys than fully functional printers. Personal 3D printers are marketed to the “pro-sumer” class, a group comprised of individual professionals and enthusiast/hobbyists.

Currently available personal 3D printers are almost universally based on material extrusion technology, where plastic filament is fed through a heated printing head and applied to an object one cross-section at a time until object is built.

The Form 1 stereolithographic process instead cures a photopolymer resin to the build platform with use of a focused energy source. After a cross-section of resin is cured to the object, the build platform shifts away from the energy source, liquid resin is spread across the top layer of the object, and the laser goes to work curing the next layer to the object.

Because of the precise focus of the energy source and the properties of a liquid photopolymers, stereolithography is capable of prints whose accuracy exceeds other 3D personal printers, capable of printing features in 300 (.012 in) microns detail and layers of material as thin as 25 microns (.001 in) Examples on Formlabs website show models with precise detail, including an impressive plastic object with a thin kinked artery that channels blue liquid in the shape of the butterfly.

Until recently, 3D printing stereolithography machines have been reserved for use in the rapid prototyping sector, and have remained at a high enough price to put the technology out of reach of the individual user.

Form 1 looks to change this. In many ways, this shift of price mirrors both the development curve of earlier material extrusion machines and countless other technologies, where manufacturers push the price down in an attempt to get the technology into the hands of the consumer.

The Meaning of Form 1

When the book of how 3D personal printing evolved is written, it is unclear whether the Form 1 one will be a chapter heading or a footnote. When viewed in the context of the paragraph above, it would seem that the future of the personal 3D printing market would reside in personal 3D stereolithography printers.

• Form 1 appears to offer an unparalleled level of detail for printers in this price range. This should allow Form 1 to deliver on some of the promises that personal 3D printers have held but not delivered on for almost a decade, as well as open up the printers for new functions and purposes.

• But on the con side, the Form 1 lacks printer size and material selection. The maximum build size for the Form 1 is 4.9 x 4.9 x 6.5 in, where the build size for the comparably priced Cube X from 3D systems is nearly double in every dimension, with maximum build dimensions of 10.75 x 10.75 x 9.5.

• Where material extrusion 3D printers have a host of plastics and alternative materials being developed or already available, Form 1 looks as though a single acrylate resin will be available for the machine in the near future. Both these factors will limit the potential uses for the Form 1 printed objects.

Also, material extrusion technology seems to have picked up a critical mass in the personal 3D printers market. The number of players and level of investment in R&D will drive accelerated innovation in this sector, potentially nullifying the current print detail advantages of the Form 1 sooner rather than later. The high level of competition in the sector may also push prices down in personal 3D printers, making the Form 1 less competitive.

Thoughts

While it is hard to see stereolithography printers overtaking material extrusion printers as the 3D personal printer paradigm, SmarTech sees the Form 1 as a novel of enough product to gain sizeable market share, once it is released.

The detail it is capable of printing, may not only be enough to persuade new potential buyers to buy their product over competitors, but may also lure existing personal 3D printer owners who are looking for a printer capable of more detailed prints for their second printer.

If demand for the Form 1 is there, which we believe it is, then we expect Formlabs will work quickly to improve upon the shortcomings of the Form 1 we highlighted earlier. As a new company, Formlabs looks to have a lot of room for growth, and should become a more viable competitor in the industry quickly.

SmarTech would also not be surprised to see other companies announce plans to bring a personal 3D stereolithography machine to the market on the next 1-3 years. The Form 1 is due to hit the open market in December of this year. We will be watching eagerly to see how well the product is received by the market.

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