Everything you need to know about the Form 2 3D SLA printer from Formlabs.
Technology: 3D Printers
Technology: 3D Printing
Technology: App / Software
If you're reading this article I am assuming you know what the Formlabs Form 2 3D Printer is, for the most part. You know that this is an SLA style printer that takes liquid resin, fires a laser at it to harden it, and layer by layer builds an actual "thing" you can hold / touch / feel.
While similar to FDM style printers, that extrude melted plastic to create an item, SLA printers are generally considered to be higher end and create smoother parts where each individual layer doesn't stand out. With all of that in mind, let's go through each part of my Form 2 experience.
The first thing you notice about the actual Form 2 as you unbox it is how well thought out it all feels. The exterior of the box has an outline of the printer on it which hopefully helps it being shipped upright. Inside, it's well packed but doesn't have tons of unneeded packing materials.
The printer itself feels sturdy and solid. It's not too heavy, but just feels solid. Setting it up is a piece of cake too. Plug it into power and it boots up like a computer. A large, color, and touch screen display walks you through the setup process much like a smartphone. You'll use the same touch screen to level the printer via an electronic bubble level. It's so well designed that they even give you tools to level the feet with. It's so easy my kids actually set it up once I unboxed it (leveling and all). Even firmware updates get downloaded automatically, though you decide if/when to install them on the touchscreen.
Like I said, it's all well thought out and feels like every detail was planned for. Even serial numbers (which you may need for support) are easy to find on the control panel and aren't numbers at all. They use an adjective-animal generator pattern for the serial number. That's adorable when you have a FuzzyPanda but maybe less funny when you're stuck with a ConstipatedPigeon. It's one of those tiny touches that makes it feel like a product made by real people (with a sense of humor) and not a faceless corporation. It's sort of a "Tesla touch" type of detail I like seeing (see Tesla Model S P85D Scores 103 Out Of 100).
Since the printer prints your part upside down, the build platform hangs upside down. It's a solid chunk of aluminum that easily clamps on and off and can all be done with one hand once you get used to it. The resin comes in cartridges which are super easy to change and deal with, though it's clear the real reason for that is to keep that all important razors-and-blades business model that keeps you buying Formlabs branded resin. More on that later.
It always seems like a new company is usually good at making hardware or software but not both. Formlabs seems to be great at both because the software, called PreForm, is shockingly good.
Install the Windows or Mac version on your computer and load up STL or OBJ files. It will first confirm which type of resin you wish to print in and then you can get your item setup for a print. All of the usual adjustments of size, rotation, and creating part copies are there.
For the beginning, a "quick print" button takes all of the guesswork out of printing. Click it and PreForm will rotate your part to a good printing angle and add supports as needed and send the job to the printer. It's virtually foolproof.
But as you get more experienced you'll probably find that printing your part with all of those supports isn't needed. For many of the parts I print I find a way to design and print them without supports or with as few supports as possible. While supports snap off easily (or can be cut off) you'll have some minor sanding to do so removing or reducing supports is best when possible. Fortunately, PreForm makes it easy to manually add and remove supports with just a mouse click.
The software isn't perfect and does struggle at times. For example, trying to make 100 copies (in a 10x10 grid) of a small (but complex) part crashed it. I kept trying and finally settled on a 7x7 grid with 49 parts being printed at a time. I know the printer platform could hold more but PreForm (on a Surface Pro 4 with 16Gb of RAM) couldn't. Even with this minor complaint, the software is top notch.
How It All Works
Let's assume you have a 3D model you want to print already. In that case, you simply load it into the PreForm software and then manually setup the support structures or let PreForm do the work for you. Click print and the job is sent to the printer over your network (wired or wifi). The hardware even knows which type of resin is in it and the software will let you know if you're selecting a resin not in the machine.
Go to the printer and the job will show on the screen. Click the Print button on the touchscreen and it will remind you of a few things like making sure the cap on the resin cartridge is open and the build platform is in place. You then click the one and only physical push button on the machine to confirm you're ready.
The Form 2 will dispense resin into the main tank and heat it at the same time. When it's at proper temperature it begins making your part layer by layer. The first 20 or so layers are usually a special "base" layer that PreForm makes. This base layer is compressed onto the aluminum base plate to keep the part in place while it's built up. Support beams grown from the base layer and your part grows from the supports. You can also print right on the base, assuming your part is design in the right way and knowing that the first 20 or layers will be compressed, but PreForm tries to warn you against this.
Those first layers take the longest as the machine is making sure things stick to that base to avoid a print failure. Once it gets going each layer is quick but when many parts have hundreds (or thousands) of layers every part you make will take anywhere from 1 hour to many hours. Length of print is impacted more by the height of the item than anything else. I can print one small item that takes an hour but when I add 30 more of that item the time only increase to two hours (for example). You can track the progress in real time on the touch screen or online (even on your phone, no app needed).
When done, and you can choose to get a text message here, you pop the base plate off the printer and take it to the included washing station. That station is a plastic bin you fill with IPA (rubbing alcohol) for 20 minutes or so. The IPA cleans the uncured resin off the part as uncured resin is very sticky stuff (wear gloves which they also include). Pry your part off the base and into the IPA for a bath.
When done, you rinse the part in water (the IPA bath can be reused many times). Next up is removal of the support beams, which often pull right off. On more delicate parts you can use the included cutters to remove them. It's very easy and most parts then require a quick sanding to remove the support nubs.
The final option is to cure the printed part under a UV light. This could be as simple as setting it in the sun for hours or building a UV curing machine. Formlabs will sell you their Form Cure machine for around $700 which is insanity at its finest. I built my own using a nail polish curing machine and a box lined with tin foil for around $35. I even added in this solar powered turntable to make sure all sides get exposed to the UV lights. I pop parts in the cure box for 30 minutes and they're good to go.
If needed, you can now prime and paint your parts like you would with a piece of wood or plastic or whatever. Or simply install or otherwise use the part as intended.
Overall, the quality of the Form 2 3D printer is excellent. Better still, the quality of the printed parts is incredible. The lowest (worst) resolution printed part has a 0.1mm layer height. That means that it every layer is 1/10 of a millimeter thick! That creates parts that are so smooth I haven't bothered to try the higher resolution levels that go up to 0.025mm (depending on resin type), which is four times more detailed (and slower to print). I have zero complaints in terms of quality, it's just that good.
The ease of use with both software and hardware is incredible. Sure, you'll need plenty of 3D skill (and 3D modeling software like Fusion 360) if you plan to design your own parts (and you wouldn't buy this if you weren't designing your own parts) but the hardware and software couldn't be easier. My kids watched me using them once and then knew how to control it from them on (with adult supervision as resins are nasty when wet).
After each print, the Form 2 will ask if you if the print was a success or failure and it will keep track of that information in your online account. In my case, I've had only two failures with 200 or so printed parts. One of those was my fault in testing the limits of building on the build platform without supports. The other was a random issue where it just stopped printing in the middle of a part and I had to reboot and start over and everything was fine.
I like that the machine is fairly quiet, at least compared to FDM style (extruder) printers that I've used. But it's not silent. You probably could work next to it and get used to it but it's best in another room. Pop it in a closet or laundry room and your done. It doesn't create any smells though you'll want to be careful with the IPA bath as IPA is very flammable (keep away from kids, pets, sparks, electricity, flames, etc).
If you don't want to buy the pricey Formlabs resins you can use any resin you want, assuming it's meant for 3D printing and don't mind filling the tank manually. This is called "open mode" and a great feature that Formlabs included. Doubt I will use it a lot, but I like knowing it's there.
For as good as the Form 2 3D printer is, it's not without a few minor faults. First is up is the price. At around $3,500 it's not a toy you'd buy. But if you need an SLA style printer it's hard to beat the price.
But the initial price isn't the real issue, the ongoing costs are. Expect to pay around $60 for a resin tray. The tray isn't the actual resin but the part the resin flows into while printing. It's a very special tray with a special glass and coating on the bottom (for the laser to go through and build your part). Each resin tray is said to last for 2-3 resin cartridges (1 liter per cartridge). After that and that glass window fogs up and doesn't let the laser pass through properly which leads to failed prints. Worst still, each type of resin (clear, white, black, etc) needs its own resin tray.
The actual resin cartridges (1 liter) are around $150 for many of the basic resin materials. Fancier materials like flexible resin, durable resin, castable resin, and dental resin can cost even more (some are a lot more).
It's not a fast machine so don't expect to turn out parts like a Star Trek Replicator. It's about the same speed as an FDM (plastic extruder) 3D printer in many cases. It's not slow, just not fast. Size also matters here. The biggest part you'll print is around 5.7" x 5x7" x 6.8" tall (145mm x 145mm x 175mm tall). This is probably fine for 90% of the things people make but it clearly has limits. Anything bigger and you have to make your piece in multiple parts and glue (etc) together.
There isn't much to dislike about the Form 2 printer but Formlabs as a company is a different story. For the most part, everyone I've dealt with at Formlabs has been excellent. But there are a few experiences overall that have soured me on Formlabs as a company, almost to the point where I decided to not buy their product.
First up, when initially looking to buy their printer I planned to buy direct from Formlabs. I was buying the printer, 5 or 6 extra resin cartridges and the associated trays each one needs, an extra build platform, and I was willing to buying other add-ons such as their Form Wash and Form Cure systems. All totalled, I had a roughly $6,000 order ready to go.
The problem was shipping as their site wanted to charge over $400 to ship to my Hawaii location. Even for Hawaii that's insane. Their own distributors were offering free shipping so I asked if they would match their own distributors and they refused. Think about that. Formlabs has to pay their distributors a commission on every sale and on a $6k order that's probably many hundreds of dollars at least. The true cost to ship to Hawaii was probably $100 or so. Formlabs could have saved that commission fee by offering me free shipping. I even offered to pay by check, saving them $150 or so in credit card merchant fees and easily covering the shipping costs to Hawaii. They wouldn't work with me.
This made no sense, especially when they told me I could wait a few weeks as they were updating their site and shipping rates which should make the shipping a bit cheaper. What? You want me to wait weeks for a chance that the shipping might go down when your own distributors will sell me the same items with free shipping? No thanks. So I bought from Dynamism.com with free shipping. The problem there is that Dynamism.com, while awesome and great overall, can't support the Form 2 printer. So you end up going to Formlabs for support who won't have your info or order info in their system. Not a huge deal, just makes having distributors sort of pointless if you can't get support from them. Still, I highly recommend buying from Dynamism.com.
The second issue is a bigger one. While I've found the support at Formlabs to be very fast and friendly to work with I have a big complaint with them. I was trying a flexible resin cartridge for the first time to run a new job I had. The cartridge was bad and no resin would come out. It was made incorrectly and couldn't release it's own resin. I contacted support on a Sunday and got their reply on the following Monday when they said they would ship me a new one (for free) via 2 day FedEx.
I figured with 2 day air I would see the item by Thursday at the latest but on Thursday morning I found it hadn't even shipped yet. They said the replacement cartridge "should" ship Thursday and arrive by Monday. Why the delay? Because of "processing time" they told me. They say they have to "sync" these things with their warehouse. Even then, they say it takes 1-2 business days for processing time and in my case it took 4 days. Does it take 4 days to "process" the concept of putting an item in a box and sticking a label to it? No, that reply was nonsense. Feels like they forgot about it more than anything else.
Go to any decent restaurant and if your meal is wrong they fix it right away, you're put first in line. Why doesn't their support work like that? If you can't count on support when you buy a 3D printer then maybe you don't want that 3D printer. To be fair, this was my second time dealing with support and a bad cartridge (the first leaked during shipping). The first experience was much better and faster. Still, I feel like I was being lied to with the "2 day processing" reply that turned out to be 4 days of processing time. Maybe it's the truth, but it feels like one of those cover-our-ass moments to me.
Is the Form 2 the printer to get? If you need an SLA style printer to create high quality parts at a relatively affordable price I would say it is the printer to get. The printer isn't perfect and Formlabs as a company has some work to do but I still feel good about giving the Formlabs Form 2 3D SLA Printer a 4.5 star rating. If Formlabs would get their act together (proper shipping fees and a better support system) then I would easily give this a 5 star review.
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