Exploring the Future of 3D Printing with Form 3: A Hands-On Review


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The emergence of desktop 3D printing a decade ago came along with the term “plug-and-play”. However, the original desktop systems were not exactly user-friendly and required fine-tuning for each model and material. Since then, one company has consistently improved its 3D printers to make them easy to use, affordable, and, above all, of professional quality.

The company, Formlabs, founded from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, distinguished itself from other desktop printers and industrial equipment. It offered something extraordinary: an industrial quality machine that could fit on your desktop for about $5,000. After it gained popularity from Kickstarter over ten years ago, the company grown into one of the few unicorns in the additive manufacturing sector. However, the question remained – did these machines live up to their hype?

Upon unboxing and testing the latest version of the company’s main stereolithography (SLA) system for several weeks, the answer was clear. The Form 3+ has proven to be a reliable, high-quality 3D printer suitable for various scenarios, from desktop prototyping to end-part manufacturing.

The package includes the Form 3+ 3D printer, Form Wash, Form Cure, and 3D printing resins and print trays.

When a series of boxes arrived at my front door, I was initially daunted by the thought of setting up the Form 3+. Commonly, configuring a 3D printer is a time-consuming task, often though it provides comprehensive, touch-operated instructions. However, this time, the setup was almost nonexistent. After unboxing and connecting the device to a power source, the Form 3+ was ready for use—it was as simple as plug and play.

Formlabs also supplied additional equipment, including the Form Wash and the Form Cure units. Since Stereolithography (SLA) involves using photosensitive resin, it’s necessary to rinse post-print objects and expose them to Ultraviolet (UV) light to harden completely. For an enthusiast, these devices may not be wholly essential—meaning you could wash your items in Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA) and expose them to sunlight. However, this is not the most efficient workflow and certainly not suitable for professional applications.

The Wash and Cure, similar to the printer itself, just required plugging in to be operational.

Utilizing the Form 3+ and the accompanying Preform software designed for preparing prints is an exceptionally smooth experience. Formlabs has invested considerable efforts into developing the most user-friendly interface for their technology. When a 3D model is loaded into Preform, the software evaluates its printability and proposes corrections if it discovers elements that might not print correctly. It also identifies areas where support structures may be necessary for a successful print, and it can generate these automatically.

Formlabs’ Preform 3D printing prep software is not only user-friendly but also provides an additional layer of complexity for advanced users.

My own limitations in CAD and engineering led me to allow Preform to make most of the decision-making. But, the software is rich enough for advanced users who prefer not to have print parameters chosen for them. Moreover, it is tailored for large-scale production environments and hosts features like Fleet Control via the web. It also gives the printer the capability to automatically eject a part for post-processing. Since I was only reviewing a single printing unit, I did not explore these features.

Photopolymers, known for their messiness and toxicity, are well-contained by Formlabs in easy-to-insert cartridges. This ensures the users do not have to physically interact with the resins. The Form 3+ printer auto-detects the material inserted, and adjusts its settings accordingly.

Upon aligning the material and model, the Form 3+ commences the print, and allows remote monitoring either directly on the printer, or via a status bar in the cloud. Unlike other lower-end filament melting machines, this SLA system did not present me with incomplete prints. Each day, I would find a perfectly printed part whenever I checked on a job. There was no plastic fiasco.

Formlabs’ Durable resin is designed for more basic printing operations, such as prototyping. The numerous support structures on the skull were removed in almost no time with very little effort.

Completed objects are removed from the Form 3+. Either the individual items or the entire print bed can be placed into the Form Wash system, which agitates the parts in a tub full of rubbing alcohol for about 10 minutes before they are moved into the Form Cure. There, they are exposed to UV light for roughly an hour.

The Form Wash comes with a variety of accessories for processing the prints, including a metal spatula for removing printed parts from the build bed and scissors for removing supports. Formlabs recently introduced a specialty build bed that makes the spatula almost unnecessary. By squeezing the handles on the device, the metal bed bends and the part pops off. The scissors are still needed, but the support structures are optimized in Preform so that they require minimal effort to remove. I was quite impressed when taking these elements off of a skull—which occupied nearly the entire build volume of the printer—took less than a minute.

SLA is typically used for the very high resolution capable with the technology, which was fully evident in the parts I made with the review unit. Formlabs’ SLA machines have become mainstays of the dental, medical, and jewelry industries, where the detail and precision of the printers are key for printing items that will be cast in metal or serve as clear surgical guides.

Parts crafted with Tough 2000 resin are intended for a 3D printed camera.

With the Durable, Clear, and Tough 2000 resins provided, I produced a range of items that could leverage this high resolution in the real world. This encompassed a dental model, potentially for the creation of an invisible aligner. I also created jewelry pieces and an archaeological artifact.

As Halloween was approaching, I chose to print a skull. This would simultaneously showcase the printer’s potential for educational and archaeological uses, as well as produce decorations. The model I printed was a 3D scan of a skull found at the Battle of Visby site. On July 27, 1361, a conflict occurred here between Danes and Gutnic Peasants.

The Clear resin appeared impressively transparent. The yellowish hue on the skull likely resulted from the part’s density.

All parts were excellent and there were no issues during the entire review procedure. Considering the low cost, it is no surprise that large organizations such as Hasbro HASuse the Form 3 for producing the end parts. This has been further streamlined with Formlabs’ recent efforts towards automation.

The Form Auto simplifies 3D printing with the Form 3+. It automatically removes finished components from the building platform and starts new prints, eliminating manual intervention. Automation was recently introduced for the firm’s powder bed 3D printing technology, which automatically depowders, cleans, and polishes thermoplastic parts.

Different pieces were manufactured using the Form 3+ with three types of resins.

Even though it was unfortunate to return the Form 3+ after finishing my review, I was reassured by the fact that there are many other units globally contributing to the overall manufacturing industry.

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“Why did the 3D printer go to therapy? Because it had too many layers of unresolved issues!”


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GCode-Guru

Meet the mastermind behind NozzleNerds.com: GCode-Guru, a 3D printing wizard whose filament collection rivals their sock drawer. Here to demystify 3D tech with a mix of expert advice, epic fails, and espresso-fueled rants. If you've ever wondered how to print your way out of a paper bag (or into a new coffee cup), you're in the right place. Dive into the world of 3D printing with us—where the only thing more abundant than our prints is our sarcasm.

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