Formlab announced the next advancement in desktop 3D publishing. Their Form 1 machine has made high-resolution light-based 3D printers just about as affordable as other pre-made 3D desktop printers.
Until today, if an at-home inventor, tinkerer, or hobbyist wanted to possess a way to materialize designs created on a computer, he or she had to choose between price and detail. The printers that squirt - excuse me, extrude - materials into the shape of the model are limited. Nozzle size controls the level of detail. It also takes time to print objects as if you were squeezing them out of a hot-glue gun, one layer at a time. Formlab's new Form 1 printer contains a vat of special light-sensitive liquid with a platform that starts at the top. Light is exposed to the bottom layer of the object first. This layer solidifies, the platform drops, and light is exposed to the next layer. The level of print detail is at least four times finer than extrusion printers.
This technology is not new. Light-based 3d printing was patented by Charles Hull in 1986 and termed "stereolithography". It's been used since then for high-detail prototypes for industrial research and development. What's new is its affordability. Kickstarter pricing for Formlab's product today is $2,299. Other replicators using this technique go for around $10,000. This puts light-based 3D printing on par with the desktop extrusion machines. (These are the ones that squirt.) For $2,199, you can buy the Makerbot 2, which has a professional style similar to the Form 1. Larger RepRap build-it-yourself kits cost anywhere from $480-1,600, depending on the model and distributor.
Let's say an inventor wants to use 3D printing at home. He or she starts with a digital model of the object. This model can be scanned from an existing object or created using Computer-Assisted Design (CAD). Our inventor can even scan an object, then change it on the computer. This digital image is akin to the document in your computer before it's printed.
Next, the image is processed by the computer, which slices it digitally into thin layers, like baklava or plywood. The exact thickness of the layers depend on the resolution of the printer, which in turn depends on the thickness of the material that will be laid down. Many materials can be used for 3D printing. One print-and-ship company, iMaterialise, includes a smorgasbord of options: ployamide, a weaker multicolor composite, bronze, silver, stainless steel, ceramics, brass, gold, transparent resin, ABS, alumide, paintable resin, high-detail resin, titanium, and something they call prime gray.
The material you choose is limited by the type of machine you have. In addition to the extrusion and light-based methods described above, there are two more major divisions of 3D printing. Grains of material can be fused together using heat or light. The most popular demonstration of this method is the CandyFab project, but it's also useful for building metal parts. Inkjet technology can be used for the very finest of resolution. In this type of 3D printer, a fine spray of binder in powder creates layers only 16 microns (0.016 mm) thick. In all four methods, the machine adds material layer after layer until the product is complete.
Once the object is printed, there may be a need to smooth the surface or remove overhang supports. Some materials require a curing process, which changes the material's composition to make it more durable. At this point, the object can be used as an art piece, tool, part, mold, or whatever it was designed for.