Low Force Stereolithography: A first look at Formlabs’ new 3D printers

When stereolithography (SLA) frontrunner, Formlabs, teased some ‘big’ news to come in April, it smartly bypassed the raised eyebrows of April Fools Day to show it wasn’t kidding around with its next additive manufacturing (AM) technology offering.

‘Big’ was the giveaway as the Boston-based 3D printing ‘unicorn‘ launched its next generation of resin-based machines, including a new large-format printer built on a reengineered form of SLA. The Form 3 and Form 3L are the product of several years of development and demand from customers for finer detail and bigger parts.

The result is a new process and abbreviation to familiarise yourself with, Low Force Stereolithography (or LFS), made up of two key components; a flexible tank and scalable Light Processing Unit (LPU). LFS has been designed to reduce the forces exerted on parts during the print process. It achieves this by using a flexible film which bows gradually as the part is lowered, reducing pressure and allowing for light-touch supports which can be easily teared away. Meanwhile, the LPU is made up of lenses and mirrors which provide precisely controlled linear illumination for accurate, repeatable parts. A single galvanometer positions the high-density laser beam in the Y direction, passes it through a spatial filter, and directs it to a fold mirror and parabolic mirror which means the beam is always perpendicular to the build plane as opposed to at an angle.

The Form 3 very similar to the Form 2 in terms of look and build, packaged in familiar Formlabs’ orange with a print volume of 145 x 145 x 185 mm (just a centimetre bigger in height compared to its predecessor) and a laser spot size of 85 microns. The larger Form 3L features a build volume of 335 x 220 x 300 mm and uses two LPUs. Both machines use the same material cartridges as the Form 2, while the 3L can hold two for accommodating large parts. Formlabs has yet to announce any specific materials optimised for LFS but it did introduce a new Draft Resin which is said to enable up to four times faster printing at a 300-micron layer height for quicker product iterations.

The machines were launched simultaneously in Europe at Hannover Messe, and in the U.S. at the Additive Manufacturing Users Group Conference where I took a tour of the Formlabs booth with Jeff Boehm, Global Marketing Lead. Though Boehm couldn’t disclose any specific customer names just yet, he did say that the machine has been tested primarily with straight up manufacturing and engineering customers, and there were a number of application examples on the booth showing how users are benefiting from the Form 3L’s enhanced build volume and Draft material.

“With the Form 3 l think we will be able to get into more in production parts because of both the volume and the print quality,” Boehm explained. “Gillette, they’re printing end-use razor handles with our printers, we are seeing other companies print end-use parts, or even jigs and fixtures where people are creating these modular setups for factory floors. They’re not end-use parts for the consumers’ use but they’re being used on the production floor. So, the larger parts that you can create with that [and the] better detail both lend [themselves] to more end-use parts.”

One example on the booth was from a wheelchair manufacturer which has historically been using Formlabs’ technology to create prototypes. Whereas previously they were printing several parts and having to assemble them together, the Form 3L means they can produce larger prototypes in one build. Leveraging the new Draft Resin, other companies like Callaway Golf are able to prototype new golf club heads, which don’t require incredibly intricate details, in just a couple of hours versus six to eight. 

Boehm commented that engineering and manufacturing users make up around 50% of Formlabs’ business with dental making up around 25% thanks to its growing range of dental-specific resins, yet to be certified on these latest systems.

The Form 3 will start distributing in June, ultimately replacing Formlabs’ flagship Form 2, which has seen the company ship around 50,000 units since its launch with reports of around 40 million parts printed by customers across the globe. In that time, Formlabs has also taken a stab at the selective laser sintering market with the Fuse 1, a low-cost powder-bed machine which is said to be shipping later this year; the Form Cell, an automated gantry system for larger users working with a fleet of Form 2 systems; and a string of experimental and advanced material additions including biocompatible resins. All the while, the Form 3 development has been happening behind the scenes at its Somerville HQ, somewhat of a labyrinth of offices and top-secret R&D labs, and supported by substantial investments which have valued the company at over 1 billion USD.

“Unlike the Fuse, which we’re really excited about, that’s a fundamentally new print process for us, we’ve been doing stereolithography for years,” Boehm added. “We’ve been working on the print process improvements, the flexible tank and the light processing unit … how to improve that process. It’s been coming together for a while.”

Formlabs is already taking orders of both systems. In keeping with its affordable hardware approach, the Form 3 will land first with a price tag of 3,500 USD with the Form 3L following later this year at a pre-order price of 9,999 USD.

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