754. That is the number of backers who jumped on board the Formlabs Kickstarter project to snag the first orange acrylic-covered SL resin printer from Formlabs. They’re $2,299 a pop, but with $2.1 million in funding (and one week to go), it’s obvious people are loving the idea behind this printer. What’s behind the design? We spoke with Lead Engineer, Ian Ferguson, to get the breakdown on the tools and the challenges of engineering a high-quality 3D printer.
Engineering a 3D Printer
I know of two people who bought the Form 1 on the first day it launched. The number of people who are backing this is really no surprise. Many people and companies are to a point where they would rather buy a printer, ready to go, with software that’s as simple to use as the printer. Formlabs is certainly on the edge of this shift and their approach provides a lot of insight into their success.
What software and tools were used in the design process?
Our primary design tool is SolidWorks. The entire 3D Printer is rendered extremely accurately in CAD. It’s an absolute necessity to allow us to communicate engineering issues with suppliers and consultants quickly and easily. We also have a great industrial designer, Yoav Reches, who is comfortable designing parts directly in SolidWorks, making the design process painlessly integrate with the rest of engineering.
Some people I’ve talked to don’t like the fragility and ‘sticky’ feeling of resin prints. How do you address this?
This is an issue we are very aware of at Formlabs and have designed the whole process in order to minimize issues related to dealing with a Resin based process. The printer comes with the Form Finish Kit which includes a tray, tools and cleaning solution designed to make it easy and straightforward to clean new printed objects. This really helps handle the stickyness issue.
In terms of strength we understand the common perception of SL resins, but have been working very hard to make our standard resin as tough as many people have come to expect from 3D Printers. It is both tough when it comes out of the printer and continues to be even after a month or more in sunlight. We don’t have any hard numbers about the toughness yet, as it is still being tweaked, but I think people will be happily surprised with the strength.
What were the engineering challenges of building the Form 1?
There are numerous engineering challenges of course. No one in the low-cost 3D printing space has decided to tackle as many different pieces of the problem as we have. Developing a beautiful printer, great materials, easy to use software and a finish kit to tie the experience together is very time-consuming. Keeping track of all these different parts in production has been a challenge. In terms of actual mechanical engineering though, our biggest challenge was imagining SL printing for the desktop and how to make that experience as user friendly as possible. There are lot of subtle details that we hope users will appreciate from the grip on the build platform to getting just the right amount of friction in the hinge for the cover and the audible ‘click’ when a resin tank is inserted securely. Small details like that are important to us and we believe it goes a long way towards making the experience for our users even better.
What factors attribute to the lower cost of the printer?
There are three main factors. First, certain patents have expired relating to the Stereolithography process. Second, we’re taking advantage of companies that can help with cost reduction (like Sony has done with making Blu-ray lasers cheap and plentiful). Third, we’re making sure we are providing only the most important parts of the 3D printing process and simplifying the printer.
What was it like working with Jon Hirschtick on the video? Is he involved in any other way with Formlabs?
Jon Hirstick has played an advisory role for Formlabs over the past year. As the founder of disruptive lower cost solution in the CAD and engineering space he is a kindred spirits and was excited to help out where he could. His advice has really spanned the whole breadth of his background in building a business. When we decided to shoot the video, he was happy to help out there as well. Even though he no longer works on SolidWorks he is still very interested to see how people use the software down to all the nitty gritty details. There was more than one occasion where I found myself CADing with him watching over my shoulder asking questions about why I performed steps one way or another.