Many of our customers are familiar with 3d printing, but for many of them 3d printing is defined by heating plastic filament to it's melting point and piping layers of of this melted plastic in a pattern until the part is complete. This method of printing, sometimes called FDM and sometimes called FFF, is the most common form of printing in education. Formlabs uses a different technology, called SLA, in their printers, and have been able to make this technology affordable to the education community. In this blog we are going to look at what you need to know, and questions you may have about SLA printing, and Formlabs machines.
What is SLA?
SLA stands for stereolithography, and it is the oldest form of 3d printing. In SLA printing a photopolymer resin, basically a plastic resin that reacts to light, is cured by a laser at precise points to create a solid object. The resin reacts with the laser light and changes from a liquid to a solid, and the object is slowly removed from the resin leaving you with a completed part.
The fundamental question for many schools is why do I need a different technology for 3d printing. The answer here is fairly simple. SLA printed parts offer much greater detail, a better finish, and the opportunity to print in materials that are not available for FFF or FDM machines. Regardless of the resolution on an FFF printer there are going to be noticeable lines on your printed part. These lines do not appear in SLA printing. With SLA your parts will be smooth and would difficult to tell that they were printed as opposed to other forms of manufacturing. Also with SLA you can print in flexible materials, and elastic materials, materials that bend and stretch. This is not something that FFF machines can effectively accomplish.
We just detailed why SLA produces superior parts, but why should Formlabs interest you? SLA technology has been prohibitively expensive for most of our customers, machines traditionally ranged from $15,000 to $150,000. This was not something in every schools budget. Formlabs broke the price barrier by creating an SLA machine under $3,000, and made a machine that was easy to use and reliable. Formlabs is the worldwide leader in SLA printing today with over 70,000 machines in use.
How many printers does Formlabs make and what is the difference between them?
Formlabs currently manufactures four SLA machines. The Form 3 is their flagship machine and will print in their standard resins and their engineering resins. The Form 3B is their biocompatible printer and will print in their standard resins and their biocompatible resins. The Form 3L is their large format version of the Form 3 and it will print parts approximately twice the size of parts from the Form 3, again using standard and engineering resins, and finally there is the Form 3BL which is the large format version of the 3B.
Which machine is right for me?
The answer to the above question is "it depends." If you need to print large parts, parts over 5.7 x 5.7 x 7.3 inches, or if you have large print runs where you need to print multiple parts at one time then the 3L or 3BL would be the better fit. If you are working on developing parts that are biocompatible, implants, test swabs, or other items that could come in contact with living tissue then the 3B or 3BL would be your best choice. If you are looking towards an engineering project then the Form 3 or Form 3L would be ideal.
Is there any post processing involved?
Post processing is required once the printer has finished the part, but it is a fairly quick process that Formlabs has built an ecosystem for. Once your part is complete it needs to be washed in Isopropyl alcohol to remove any excess liquid resin. Formlabs has created an automated wash station to accommodate this. After the part is washed it should be further cured in an ultraviolet oven to achieve maximum structural properties. Formlabs also makes a cure oven to assist with this.
Is it messy and is it safe?
These are questions that I hear often from customers. You are printing with a liquid resin and there is a possibility that there could be a spill. Formlabs has minimized some of that risk through an automatic resin distribution system. Resin is dispensed automatically from a sealed cartridge into a tank in the printer. This minimizes risk of spills from a user pouring resin on their own into the tank. If resin does spill it can be a easily cleaned with isopropyl alcohol. In terms of safety it is advised to wear rubber gloves when handling parts that may have liquid resin on them. Some people have had adverse skin reactions to the resin. If resin gets on your skin warm water and soap should take care of it.
How do I learn how to use it?
RAWL is always happy to provide onsite installation, training, and continued support for any product we sell, and Formlabs is no exception. These machines are easy to use and it has been my experience that training can be easily accomplished in a couple of hours.
What about service?
Formlabs has a team of service techs and engineers available at their home office in Boston who you could contact through their service portal for online support. At RAWL we have trained our sales staff to troubleshoot and repair machines, and we can be reached with a phone call (804) 282-8239 and be onsite quickly to help you with any issues you may have.
Formlabs makes an affordable, reliable series of 3d printers which get superior results, and RAWL as always will train you to use the machine, consult with you on the best options for printers and resins, and will help if there are any problems along the way.