Forming An Opinion About the Formlabs 3-D Printer
To date, I’ve bought two 3-D printers: Makerbot’s Replicator 2, and Formlabs’ Form-1. The Form-1 is the one I love.
Why? Four main reasons. Price, ease of use, resolution, and software.
Price. So why do I think that the $3,299 price is reasonable? I look at it two ways. First, it’s a lot cheaper than alternative printers that achieve the same resolution at 10x the price. Second, and more interestingly, it’s cheaper than the Apple II+ was at launch, and about the same price as the Apple-1 (for which I suspect it was named).
Here’s the basic math. In 1976, the Apple-1 sold for $666.66, for a computer built into a funny looking wooden box. In 1976 dollars, the Form-1 costs $805.83 and includes state of the art industrial design. In 1979, the Apple II+ sold for $1,298, versus $1,028.17 in 1979 dollars for the Form-1.
$3,299 might sound like a lot, but in historical context, it’s damn impressive.
Ease of Use. With a few minor exceptions, the unboxing and setup process felt like what I’ve come to expect from a leading consumer electronics company. Unlike Makerbot, there weren’t extensive leveling and calibration steps required. Setup was super-simple: remove packaging materials, pour resin into the tray, plug the printer into the wall, and connect your laptop. Download the Preform software, import your favorite .stl file (I chose the classic rook with the spiral staircase and double helix inside), generate supports to the model for manufacturability using the Preform software, and hit “Print”.
Unlike the disaster I had with my very first Makerbot print, my first Form-1 print came out perfectly. On the very first print run.
Resolution. Take a look at this Instagram picture of my first Form-1 print - this wasn’t even at the highest resolution setting. The results speak for themselves.
Software. My biggest gripe is that I had to dig my PC out of storage in order to run the Preform software. But the software worked perfectly and intuitively. No user manual needed. Unlike the Makerbot approach, where you stuff an SD card containing .stl files into the printer, with the Form-1 you actually attach your laptop to the printer until the file is cached on the printer - like a typical user would expect. This uploading process took only a few minutes, and after that I was able to disconnect my laptop while the print job ran. I’m sure a network connection is coming to the Form-1 soon, and they have announced that Mac software will be available in the near future.
I love the fact that the Form-1 uses software as a gateway to each print job. Right now the software is basic, but anyone can see that the software will rapidly improve with time. This means that the Form-1 printing experience will get better and better as well - with the exact same hardware and resins - but with rapidly improving control software easily downloaded from Formlabs.
Downsides? The only real downside I see for an ordinary consumer is post-processing with rubbing alcohol, which you have to go buy at a drugstore and pour into a plastic container. That said, I think it’s a small price to pay for printed objects with high resolution and they’ll find a large market of creative design professionals eager for this capability.
No, Shasta isn’t a current investor in the company. But I’m really, really impressed with what these guys have accomplished on only a few million dollars of equity capital to date.