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High-precision Form 1 3D printer ditches molten plastic for liquid and lasers

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form 1 (kickstarter)
form 1 (kickstarter)

In the past few years we’ve seen a number of companies, most notably Makerbot, try to bring 3D printing mainstream with inexpensive desktop printers. Now, a new company called Formlabs is trying to bridge the gap between the affordability of low-cost extruded plastic (FDM) printers and the quality of professional devices with a printer called the Form 1.

So far, the consumer-grade 3D printers we’ve seen have all used more or less the same principle — feed a plastic filament through a heated extruder, laying down layer upon layer of hot plastic until the part is complete. Formlabs is taking a different tack with the Form 1, using stereolithography to make much more precise prints using a liquid photopolymer resin. It relies on the same principle used for dental fillings — the malleable (in this case, liquid) material hardens rapidly when exposed to light of a certain wavelength. In stereolithography printing, a laser draws a single printed layer on the surface of a vat of liquid resin, then the part is hoisted up as the next layer gets drawn; in the Form 1's case up to a maximum size of 4.9 x 4.9 x 6.5 inches. Unlike printers that use a plastic filament, parts are built downward instead of upward.

A stereolithographic printer for the masses?

Formlabs says its device is precise enough to build layers 25 microns (about 1/10,000th of an inch) tall; a considerable lead over MakerBot’s new Replicator 2, which is capable of 100 micron layers. The company is pushing the Form 1 (video below) as a pro quality alternative to other inexpensive 3D printers; one that's good enough for MIT engineers. And the team would know — its founders are from the college's Media Lab.

The company has already reached more than four times its Kickstarter goal of $100,000, which means it will be fully funded at the end of October, but the team points out a number of risks and challenges, including supplier contracts that haven’t been finalized. Judging from the video, the Form 1 looks much more complete than other Kickstarter projects we've seen (Formlabs says it's the seventh generation prototype), and with such a low goal (the price of 40 printers), we're curious why the company turned to crowdfunding to begin with. Kickstarter recently stressed that it's not a store, but if you're interested in being one of the first to own a Form 1 it will cost you a cool $2,699; the $2,499 tier is already sold out. At least you'll be at the front of the line for delivery.