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FormLabs Form 3 Review

By Brian Nadel, business.com Writer | Updated Jun 22, 2020

By re-engineering how its stereolithography printers work, the FormLabs Form 3 not only can make precise parts, and offers a good variety of materials, but does so at a cost that is tiny compared to its competitors. With a simple and straightforward process, the Form 3 is one of the best values in 3D printing but tops out with the ability to only make comparatively small parts, although the company has a super-sized version in the works.

FormLabs Form 3

FormLabs Form 3

The Best Industrial 3D Printers of 2020

The Verdict

Form sets the pace by downsizing everything about the Form 2 3D printer except its ability to make precise parts and products. It may be limited by the size of its output, but the Form 2 is a winner for its ability to adeptly create a range of items.

FormLabs continues with its inverse stereolithography process, but its laser and mirror have been integrated for better control and precision, yielding a simpler and more direct way to make a variety of parts. With the ability to use a range of plastics, ceramics and engineered polymers, the Form 3 is a versatile system that, at $5,000 for its three components, is a steal compared to the competition. It may not be able to make large components, but the company's eagerly expected Form 3L should be able to upsize its abilities and the ambitions of small businesses.

Features

FormLabs latest effort, the Form 3 printer, continues to use the company's inverse stereolithography process but with a twist. It still uses a 405-nanometer laser beam that's aimed vertically through the liquid resin tank to selectively harden the plastic to create the model. The twist uses what FormLabs calls low-force stereolithography on the new Form 3 model where the light processing unit's laser is integrated with its parabolic mirror. This not only ensures correct beam placement, but it simplifies the process and makes it easier to peel the completed component off the building stage as well as requiring fewer support structures to prevent sagging during the build.

Like earlier FormLabs printers, the Form 3 works with a variety of liquid photopolymer raw materials, but not metals or carbon fiber. They come in 1-liter cartridges that fill the resin tank and run from $150 to $200; the company sells Explorer packs of four or five cartridges for between $680 and $900.

The Standard resin should be fine for most work, like product cases and a variety of structural parts. It's available in clear, white, gray and black; if you want a custom color, FormLabs offers cyan, magenta, yellow, black and white dyes so that you can mix your own. By contrast, the draft resin yields faster access to completed parts, but they have lower resolution and can be made in gray, black or white.

There are also engineering and tough resins for specialty applications, where strength or temperature resistance are paramount, such as for gears or the lid for a coffee pot. By contrast, the wax resin is used to make items that easily melt for creating sand- or die-cast molds. Finally, FormLabs also has dental, ceramic and jewelry materials. 

Using one of their 3D printers can streamline a company's operations. For instance, Ashley Furniture uses the company's earlier Form 2 printer to replace expensive machined alignment pins for some of its products. This seemingly small production change led to a savings of $4.10 per part and did away with the one-month lead time to replenish its stock. Now, Ashley makes the pins as needed. After the change to 3D-printed pins, the factory raised its productivity by 10% using 15% less labor.

With a resolution of up to 25 microns and the ability to vary layer thickness to as high as 300 microns, the Form 3 provides an extra degree of accuracy and flexibility when going from CAD model to finished part. Because the resin's viscosity varies with temperature, as the part is built, the printer's chamber is kept at a constant temperature to maintain predictable build speeds and reliable results. This is done automatically by the Form 3 printer behind the scenes.

When the build is done, some of the resins require a two-step post-production process to fully harden the parts. It starts with a wash station that cleans off residual resin leftover from the stereolithography printing process. This is followed by a cure stage that combines 405-nanometer light with a heat treatment at between 140 and 175 degrees Fahrenheit to fully consolidate and harden the part. This step varies from an hour to cure the engineering resin to a half-hour for the standard resin.

The Form 3 is only 15.9 x 14.8 x 20.9 inches, making it perfect for place on a desk, table, or lab bench; FormLabs doesn't sell stands or carts for it. This size limits the Form 3 to items no bigger than 5.7 x 5.7 x 7.3 inches, potentially restricting its usefulness. The upcoming Form 3L will be able to make parts five times as big and should be available by the end of the year.

The Form 3 family is inexpensive, with all three devices selling for $5,000, although the printer on its own costs $3,500. By contrast, the EnvisionTec Micro Plus HD sells for $10,000, yet can't come close to the Form 3's maximum part size and resolution.

Ease of Use

The Form 3's production sequence is simple and straightforward. It starts with a standard .STL or .OBJ file of the item to be made. The company's PreForm software divides it into production slices, adds supports, and does a preprint check of the resin tank cartridge and build platform before the build can start.

The Form 3 connects with the company's IT infrastructure via an Ethernet port or Wi-Fi link. After pressing Start, the Form 3 does the rest. While the build is taking place. The Form 3's dashboard software monitors the system, what it's making and its material supplies. It can monitor several printers at once.

With a 5.5-inch color touchscreen, the Form 3's commands and adjustments can be directly entered into the Form 3 printer. The screen shows the entire process, and the printer can run unattended. It sends alerts and emails if something goes wrong, and the screen shows when the build is complete. The one thing it lacks is a built-in web cam for a technician to remotely view the process.   

Customer Service

As is the case with most of its competitors, the Form 3 comes with a one-year warranty. Trained technicians are available 24/7 to help with problems or answer questions about everything from which resin is the best to use for a specific application to how to update the system's software. The optional Pro Service plan includes training, priority service and the ability to get a hot swap replacement machine.

Online, FormLabs provides a lot of material to help make the most of the Form 3 and the company's other 3D printers. This ranges from a valuable quick start guide for getting the machine set up to a full manual to variety of maintenance tips. The most useful is help diagnosing what caused a defect in the part, which reads like a detective novel at times. All firmware and software upgrades are available for the life of the printer.

FormLabs Form 3

FormLabs Form 3

The Best Industrial 3D Printers of 2020

The Verdict

Form sets the pace by downsizing everything about the Form 2 3D printer except its ability to make precise parts and products. It may be limited by the size of its output, but the Form 2 is a winner for its ability to adeptly create a range of items.

Brian Nadel: Contributing Writer
Brian Nadel,
business.com Writer
Brian is a technology writer based north of New York City. He writes stories for Business.com, Tom's Guide, ComputerWorld and Scholastic Magazines. He is the former editor-in-chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.