As 3D printers morph from workshop machines to desktop tools, many are taking on forms that mimic the sleek laptops and other devices that already have a home on the average desk. The Form 1+, which was released in June by Cambridge startup Formlabs, is one of the most beautiful printers ever built. It’s also one of the most functional and reliable, and over three weeks of testing I found it to be a great choice for an advanced consumer 3D printer.
The $3,299 Form 1+ is the successor to Formlabs’ first printer, the Form 1, and actually doesn’t look very different. But it is designed to print up to 50 percent faster than the Form 1 with a laser that is four times more powerful.
What’s a laser doing in a 3D printer? Well, the Form 1+ isn’t the same type of printer as a MakerBot or most other desktop machines, which rely on a technology known as fused deposition modeling (FDM). It’s a stereolithographic (SLA) 3D printer; that means instead of melting plastic and then allowing it to harden, it uses a liquid plastic resin as its “ink.” The laser cures the resin a layer at a time, slowly building a 3D object. Items actually print upside down while the build platform slowly raises out of the resin.
Even with user-friendly models, operating a 3D printer is about managing expectations. Not every shape works. It takes a lot of waiting. It’s also about understanding your own role in the printing process. Neglect regular maintenance and your print jobs will fail.
With that in mind, the Form 1+ met, and often exceeded, my expectations over several weeks of regular use. I never had to calibrate it or deal with unexplained errors. It just worked–the first 3D printer to ever do so for me. The print jobs that did fail seemed to be my fault; I picked a design that was too tricky or didn’t clean the resin tank thoroughly.
The Form 1+’s biggest strength is the quality of prints it puts out. It is capable of printing layers of plastic just 25 microns thick–a quarter of the width of a piece of human hair. That’s four times finer detail than the 100-micron layers MakerBot’s fifth generation Replicator is capable of printing. The resulting objects look perfectly smooth, and very professional. The level of detail it puts out has been met or surpassed by other SLA printers on the market, but I’m not sure that the human eye would be able to tell the difference.
Preform, the software developed by Formlabs that preps files ahead of sending them to the printer, was also reliable and simple to use. It spotted problems with files I downloaded from Thingiverse–which hosts designs generally made for FDM printers–and repaired them without any effort on my part. It highlighted problem areas that might not print well. It made it easy to tweak sizes, placement, orientation and the location of the supports that hold up objects while they are printing.
Still, the Form 1+ shares the same weaknesses as any SLA printer. It can be messy to use, as you constantly have to deal with the liquid resin it uses to print. After a part comes out of the printer, it needs to be soaked in rubbing alcohol to get off the excess resin. Then the supports have to be clipped off. This tends to leave ugly plastic nubs where the supports were attached, which can only be removed with sanding. It’s a headache.
The printer is also missing some premium features that are becoming more common among newer printers. It doesn’t include a camera for viewing a print job’s process from afar, which would be useful considering it can easily take eight or even 24 hours to print objects on the Form 1+. A computer also needs to be plugged into the printer while the file transfers over, after which the computer can be unplugged.
But overall, the Form 1+ is still a very competitive printer. It will remain a staple among 3D printer users who need their 3D printed parts to look absolutely beautiful.