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Formlabs Review

By
Brian Nadel
,
business.com writer
| Updated
Feb 13, 2019
Home
> Technology
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If you think you need to spend upwards of five or six figures to get the accuracy and precision of a stereolithographic 3D printer, times have changed. The FormLabs Form 2 not only downsizes costs to as little as $3,350, but it can reliably create parts and products from a variety of materials. 

Formlabs

Formlabs

The Best Industrial 3D Printers of 2019

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.

To view all our recommendations for 3D printers, visit our best picks page. 

Founded by three MIT students in 2011, FormLabs takes the best attributes of stereolithographic 3D printers – accuracy and the ability to make functional parts – and trims them to the desktop level.  In other words, the Form 2 is entry-level in price only. 

Features

The system uses a powerful 405-nanometer violet laser and steerable mirrors to selectively cure a liquid photopolymer raw material into a solid structure. Its spot size of 140 microns allows the Form 2 to create layers of 25-, 50- or 100-micron thickness at a resolution of 25 microns, more than enough for making prototypes, tools and jigs as well as most small products. 

FormLabs sells 17 different photoreactive materials for the Form 2 that create methacrylate polymers with a variety of properties. There are resins that can make general purpose materials, translucent toughened substances and flexible ones, but not all of the resins are able to work with the Form 2's three thickness levels. 

The latest addition is a silica-filled ceramic material that after firing is chemically inert and an insulator. It can withstand temperatures of up to about 1,800 Fahrenheit for functional parts that can stand up to abuse. 

The resins come in cartridges with a shelf life of at least a year and sell for between $150 and $400 a liter. Each container has enough raw material to make three complete chess sets with intricate pieces that are about 2 inches tall. It takes about 45 minutes to print each piece at the Form 2's top speed of 1 to 3 centimeters an hour of build height. 

While none of FormLabs' materials are brightly colored, the company sells a $175 kit that lets you mix your own. The kit comes with white base resin along with black, white, yellow, cyan and magenta pigments and syringes to precisely measure and mix a rainbow of shades. 

Ease of Use

Loading new raw material couldn't be easier. It takes a minute to open printer's the cover, open the resin cartridge's vent cap, slide it into place and get the job going. In fact, it's cleaner than changing the ink on many printers. 

Rather than being out in the open, like extrusion designs, the Form 2 has an orange cover that prevents ordinary daylight from prematurely hardening the resin. Happily, it doesn't need to operate in an inert atmosphere that industrial sintering designs require. 

Because its output is smooth with sharp edges and accurate dimensions, every day thousands of companies use the Form 2 to create everything from custom orthodontics to elaborate earrings to prototype parts. Pankl Racing uses the device to make the tooling, jigs and manufacturing fixtures needed for the consistent production of custom race car parts. Using the Form 2 instead of traditional materials and techniques shortens the time and cost of the completed product by as much as 90 percent, according to the company. 

The biggest compromise with the Form 2 is size. Its build volume of 6.9 x 5.7 x 5.7 inches adds up to a maximum item of 3.7 liters, one-tenth the size of things the Nyomo Makyn 6 can produce. On the other hand, the Form 2 costs one-third that of the Makyn 6. 

Still, at 20.5 x 13.5 x 13 inches and weighing 28.5 pounds, the Form 2 is one of the smallest and lightest 3D printers of its type. It can easily be stashed in the corner of a desk, on a shelf or moved to where it's needed on a wheeled cart. The company doesn't sell a stand. 

To get inside, slide up the orange cover, and you're looking at the machine's build stage with the resin cartridge in the back and the system's 4.3-inch color touchscreen up front. In addition to showing that the job is underway and its progress, the screen displays how long it's going to take to finish. You can pause or stop the job at any point with a tap of a finger. 

When the Form 2 has finished printing, the part might not be quite ready for use. It needs to be washed to remove unreacted resin with isopropyl alcohol for at least 10 minutes. Then the part needs to be cured at 170 degrees Fahrenheit while rotating until it attains its full hardness. FormLabs sells a pair of similarly sized Form Wash and Form Cure chambers to do this post-processing. They sell for $500 and $700, or you get the printer and the two post-processing stations for under $5,000.   

The printer comes with FormLabs's PreForm software for prepping the model. It starts with a standard STL or OBJ file and outputs the .FORM format that the printer uses. It has all the manufacturing information embedded, including slice thickness, supports and orientation. The app is available for Windows (version 7 or newer) and Macs (OSX 10.7 or newer) but not Linux systems. While the company lacks full apps for setting up print jobs with a phone or a tablet, you can remotely monitor progress. 

While the Form 2 can be left on its own, there's no webcam to remotely monitor its progress. You can get the Form 2 online with either wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi networking, or use the included USB cable with a dedicated workstation. There's a USB outlet upfront for inserting a flash drive with the part's file for quick prints. 

In addition to changing the raw material cartridge as it empties, you'll need to occasionally clean the antireflective surface below the resin tank. Every 1,000 or so layers that are created, the tank will need to be cleaned or replaced; a new one costs $59. FormLabs's new longer life LT resin tray costs $99 but should last 10 to 20 times longer. 

Customer Service

FormLabs includes a one-year warranty. A two-year warranty extension costs $899. If you're new to stereolithography printing, it's a good idea to get the $499 Pro Service Plan, which includes a half an hour of online personalized training and rapid response to questions or problems. 

While the Form 2 lacks a comprehensive manual, the support site is the go-to place with startup guides, videos and help with error messages. The company's technicians are available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., ET, Monday through Friday. 

With the ability to create a variety of parts and products with exceptional accuracy, the Form Labs Form 2 makes a big deal of having the small price tag of $3,350. Few 3D printers can do more for less.

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Formlabs

Formlabs

The Best Industrial 3D Printers of 2019

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
Brian Nadel
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.