Debate and implications about Kickstarter's recent policy changes aside, it's still the de facto platform for crowdfunding projects of all stripes, and the FORM 1 3D Printer is the latest launch to receive the sort of viral fanfare typically reserved for a certain Cupertino-based computing concern. Since the Technology project went live this morning, it's surpassed its $100,000 goal by nearly 100% as of press time (and possibly record time).
Hot on the heels of MakerBot's hot new Replicator 2—having seen it in person at their new retail space in Lower Manhattan, I must say it's a handsome piece of hardware—Formlabs have most definitely taken the personal 3D printing game to the next level. In contrast to MakerBot's less expensive, less open or otherwise dubious competitors, the team of MIT grads and current grad students sought to lower the cost of a higher resolution—and traditionally, higher-priced—process.
For most designers, the extruded plastic (i.e. FDM) of low-end printers is simply not capable of the high resolution and quality surface finish necessary for professional work. So, we decided to go straight for the real deal: a stereolithography printer we call the Form 1.
Stereolithography (SL) is the gold standard for accuracy and resolution in the 3D printing world, reaching layer thicknesses and feature sizes that are worlds ahead of what is possible with FDM. The process is pretty straightforward - a laser is used to draw on the surface of a liquid plastic resin that hardens when exposed to a certain wavelength of light. The laser draws and hardens a layer at a time until the entire model is built. It's simple, reliable, and quiet.
Unfortunately, SL is traditionally one of the most expensive 3D printing processes. With pricey lasers and high-precision optical components, SL 3D printers can easily cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Until now.
If the overwhelming response is the surest sign that extrusion-based printers simply weren't cutting it, both the MakerBot Replicator 2 and the FORM 1 represent a broader trend in the steady growth of the 3D Printer category, from geekout-worthy niche applications to populist playthings. Meanwhile, the not-quite-practical applications of 3D printing remain just out of reach: we recently saw an example of a DIY replacement part project, and just a couple days ago, Teenage Engineering announced that they'd be releasing CAD files for replacement parts for their OP-1 Synthesizer.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, it's worth revisiting Kevin Quigley's rather less optimistic take on the future of 3D printing, and it seems that Formlabs is heeding his advice, at least to the extent that it their printer is currently targeting "professional creators." In other words, the FORM 1 was created for designers, by designers, and is not intended for the general public... yet. (Nevertheless, their copywriter is in rare form, what with the pun-heavy pledge tiers.)
The Formlabs crew celebrates after hitting their funding goal this morning
Of course, at $2,499 a pop (for one of the 60 or so pre-orders available at press time), it's a steal for any small shop looking for an affordable SLA machine. Check out the Kickstarter page to learn more.