Formlabs has developed an all-new proprietary printing system for the Form 3 that is distinctive for its Light Processing Unit (LPU), and how it is implemented in the machine.
Where traditional SLA setups use a stationary laser, with the beam directed by a pair of mirror-toting galvanometers to trace the model into the resin, the Form 3’s Low Force Stereolithography (LFS) takes this to an extreme, bouncing the laser beam through a chain of single galvanometer (directing in the Y-axis), mirror, and parabolic mirror, all while rowing the entire laser module back and forth along the X-axis of the print.
The video below demonstrates the LPU in action.
The purpose of this extended path for the laser beam is to ensure it can hit the resin perpendicular to any point on the print plate, ensuring scalability (which we will see in action on the dual LPU-wielding Form 3L when it launches later this year) and consistent edge-to-edge print quality.
The LPU unit moves along a stepper-motor-driven lead screw that, sensibly, features vibration damping. Ostensibly, these new moving parts might introduce noise to the surface of a print through vibrations, however, we’ve seen little to suggest this being the case.
Completeness In Action
Complementing the new LPU-enabled printing method is a host of print monitoring sensors geared toward micromanaging every aspect of a print. Between a paired computer and the large color touchscreen on the Form 3 itself, you have a view on the material cartridge in use, the resin vat the material is paired to, milliliters of resin used by a given print, the final print time, resolution and number of layers, a complete history of prints (including successes and, theoretically, failures, but we didn’t encounter any) via a Gannt-chart-like overview, not to mention accountability in the print owner’s name and specific printer (presumably this diversifies with more than one Formlabs machine hooked onto your network.)
And then, complimenting the complimentary, are automations such as the Form 3’s analog to build plate leveling (the LPU presses the resin vat’s flexible film to meet the print plate as it slides back and forth in the X-axis) along with filling the resin vat automatically from the closed resin cartridges, and mixing ahead of a print.
All of the above works in service of a 145 x 145 x 185 mm print volume — similar to that of the Form 2 (which has slightly less travel in the Z-axis.) This gives the Form 3 the added bonus compatibility with Form 2 print plates.
Up and Up and Uptime
Overall it culminates in a sophisticated experience that is clearly designed to let the user spend as little time as possible using the printer, and more time controlling the workflow and keeping things humming along. A paradoxical experience for the reviewer, testing a machine seemingly designed to be interacted with sparingly, but we should imagine for the engineer or business, the Form 3’s hands-off nature is probably most welcome.
In combination with the Form Wash and Form Cure stations, you could practically handle a print job from print preparation to post-processed one-handed. You wouldn’t want to, mind, since resin is nasty stuff and it’s not worth the risk of spilling even a drop, but between flipping the print plate lock open and operating the wash and cure stations — even popping a print off the plate using Formlabs’ custom pry tool — it requires minimum input on the part of the operator.
It is difficult for us to draw a direct comparison between our setup in the All3DP office — a lone reviewer and single machine on the network — to that of an environment that produces parts with various stages of collaboration. We can say that it’s trivial to imagine how the Form 3 would fit into such a setting. It provides all of the tools for oversight and resource management, backing up what is technically a superior printing experience both in terms of usability, and, for the most part, print quality.
Here’s the But
The Form 3 is not infallible, however. Throughout the course of our testing, we have had some small interaction with Formlabs support diagnosing infrequent artifacts on our prints. This was attributable to one of two things: Either an issue with the Form 3’s disposable resin vats, or dust present on the LPU’s glass window; both troubling for their own particular reasons.
The resin vats are consumables — no surprises there. The flexible interface layer — a key attribute of Low Force Stereolithography — can eventually wear out, and with some degree of mechanical movement involved in their loading and mixing, a limited lifespan is to be expected. However, our issue came after only a couple of prints, introducing a clear indentation on prints across the full span of the build plate. This happened twice, for two different reasons.
Consultation with Formlabs quickly diagnosed the first instance as an issue with the resin vat. Discarding the faulty vat a fresh one resolved the problem. The second instance of this print flaw came from when large specks of dust finding their way inside the LPU, settling on the underside of its window.
This is a trickier problem to fix, given the LPU is typically parked out of sight within the base of the printer when not printing. To give this statement context, the only time we ever saw the LPU window exposed to the room during our testing was when faking a replacement in order to check and confirm the presence of dust, and later to clean it off.
Dust and particulates blocking light paths are a common issue with resin printing — there’s no escaping it. Only machines used in clean-room conditions or many magnitudes more expensive with dedicated cleaning systems will completely avoid such issues. But it’s a little puzzling to experience the issue so soon after firing the Form 3 up, especially given the shielded park position and enclosed design of the LPU system.
It’s said that there are some 1,000 Form 3 printers in the wild, but we’ve found little to no chatter online pointing to dusting inside the LPU being a common issue. Such has been the softly-softly launch of the Form 3, and our sense that Formlabs is keen to catch and patch things up quickly.
It’s would appear to be early days for the printer — even as we publish this review, the company is still putting together the documentation detailing guides for users to maintain their machines (we tested a user-guide-in-progress to resolve our LPU dust issue, finding the process to be quick and efficient).
We’re glad that we did encounter problems with the Form 3. Such issues on a high-spec device as the Form 3 are instructive not only for how the machine handles but the company and customer care itself.
As mentioned, infrequent email exchanges with Formlabs’ enterprise care team — the same folks that help businesses hit the ground running with the company’s machines — lead to quick solutions and expeditiously shipped replacement parts. This level of customer care is available to those that purchase the optional (but bundled in complete Form 3 packages) Pro Service Plan, but it’s our understanding that Formlabs has set up in such a way as to be able to offer quick diagnostic and instructional support for customers as needed.
The Form 3 has been designed for modularity and, in the rare case it is needed, maintenance from the user, which we saw working first-hand thanks to contact with the company’s enterprise care team. So even in light of the nascent documentation covering the printer, there is a safety net of sorts in place.
Less a problem, but seemingly a missed opportunity is that firmware updates for the printer can only happen via USB connection to a computer. Despite the Form 3’s WiFi connectivity, you can’t pipe an update over the air which feels out of place when considered against other areas of the printer’s operation.
Starting at $3,499, we’d argue the Form 3 levels out at a pretty paltry sum when compared to other professional resin printing machines of similar dimensions and capabilities. On the other hand, to be considered a viable manufacturing or industry-specific solution, we would expect that such bumps need to be ironed out.
One bump that might be tricky to iron out is the lack of an “off” button. Clearly the Form 3 is designed for near-constant uptime, which our was and handled excellently, but on the infrequent occasion you have to reboot the print (after a major maintenance task, such as replacing the LPU), you can only do so by ripping out the difficult to reach power cord on the rear of the machine. It’s a bit of a hassle.