We take a look at two of the newest 3D printers coming to market to see how they stack up on material quality, printing resolution, and cost.
The demand for affordable personal 3D printers has skyrocketed in recent years, with new models and designs popping up all the time. Budget-conscious enthusiasts, designers, engineers, and small-business owners can still choose from plenty of inexpensive and kit options, but the higher-performance, better-equipped designs seem to have gained the most traction. Two of the best and most talked about 3D printers, the MakerBot Replicator 2 and Formlabs Form 1, were on the scene at the Maker Faire in New York City earlier this fall, giving us a good opportunity to compare both printers’ features and sample prints.
MakerBot Replicator 2
MakerBot first started making a name for itself in 2009 with the introduction of the Cupcake extrusion printer kit. The Thing-O-Matic came out the following year. Then, in early 2012, MakerBot introduced the Replicator, a larger factory-assembled design that promoted the idea of personalized manufacturing. The Replicator signaled a shift in MakerBot strategy: an increased focus on users who want a machine that works with minimal setup and maintenance.
The Replicator 2, announced in mid-September, is MakerBot’s latest attempt to push into the commercial 3D printer market. A substantial upgrade to the original Replicator, the Replicator 2 features a powder-coated steel frame, a quicker and easier 3-point leveling system, 100 micron (about 1/250-inch) resolution, and a larger build envelope. Also, the sequel is optimized for use with PLA plastic, which is an easier print material to work with than the ABS used by the previous generation.
In addition to the new printer design, MakerBot has announced MakerWare, a software package that prepares model slices up to 20 times faster than before. The company says MakerWare shortens printing times by up to 30 percent by better optimizing the printing path.
Formlabs Form 1
Formlabs’ goal is to bring stereolithographic 3D printing technology to the masses. Where extrusion-type 3D printers squeeze heated plastic through a tiny nozzle to build models up layer by layer, stereolithographic printers involve a precisely aimed laser that polymerizes, cures, and hardens liquid plastic resin.
The Form 1 produces super-smooth models with layers as thin as 25 microns (1/1000 inch) and with x/y features as small as 300 microns (about 1/85 inch). It can print complex designs with intricate features, such as those with a lot of overhang, that even the newest round of low-priced extruder-based printers cannot handle. This makes the Form 1 exceptionally appealing to those designers for whom the print quality of extruder-based 3D printers (at least those in the Form 1’s sub-$3000 price range) just isn’t good enough.
In September Formlabs launched a Kickstarter campaign with a target of $100,000. The company surpassed this goal in record-breaking speed before filling its coffers with nearly $3 million in pledges. Formlabs is a young company that has yet to even ship out its first printer, but its recent innovations and success on Kickstarter show that it has the potential to stir up and advance the personal 3D-printing market.
We had the opportunity to check out both 3D printers at this fall’s Maker Faire. After handling sample prints from both printers, it was clear that the Form 1, with its tiny 25-micrometer layers, easily bests the resolution of the Replicator 2 (100-micrometer layers).
Maximum Print Volume
The Replicator 2 can print objects as large as 11.2 x 6.1 x 6 inches. The Form 1’s max is quite a bit smaller, at 4.9 x 4.9 x 6.5 inches.
Winner: Replicator 2
Higher resolution aside, the Form 1 can print small-volume models that the Replicator 2 cannot. The Formlabs team does this by supporting dainty structures with thin, breakable structures that the user can remove easily during the finishing stage.
Winner: Form 1
Price (Initial investment and raw materials)
The Replicator 2 is priced at $2199 and the Form 1 is currently $2699 on Kickstarter with an undisclosed future retail price. You also get a form finish kit with the Form 1—a set of accessories that is used to clean and separate freshly printed parts.
But there’s also the cost of raw materials to consider. One kilogram of the PLA filament used in the Replicator 2 will set you back $48, while 1 liter of resin for the Form 1 is estimated to be priced at $149 (or $129 for early adopters).
For simplicity’s sake let us assume that liquid plastic resin has a density comparable to that of water, or 1 gram per cubic centimeter. Thus, resin for the Form 1 would cost $149 per kg, which is about three times the price of PLA plastic filament for the Replicator 2. Even if the Form 1 resin were closer in density to plexiglass, the price would come out to $109/kg (if using the $129 per liter Kickstarter backer price), which is still more than double the price of the Replicator 2’s PLA filament. If you want the Form 1’s resolution, you pay for it.
Also, the Replicator 2 can be set to hollow out the insides of a model, with a partial infill, if the design does not need to be solid. It is unclear as to whether you can do something similar with the Form 1, but you most likely cannot.
Winner: Replicator 2
According to MakerBot, the PLA filament use by the Replicator 2 is harder and more brittle than ABS, but it is also less fickle to work with. (Note: In early 2013 MakerBot will release the Replicator 2X, a dual-extruder version of the Replicator 2 that can work with both PLA and ABS.)
Formlabs’ liquid resin, meanwhile, is an acrylate-based formula, with the cured material possessing mechanical properties similar to ABS but with lower impact strength. Formlabs warns that although the Form 1 can print functional parts, the model’s mechanical properties might change over time. Although after handling Form 1 sample prints, we are quite confident in the sturdiness of the material.
MakerBot currently offers six colors of PLA filament in its online store with the selection expected to grow over time. Formlabs will offer only matte gray resin at the time the Form 1 starts shipping but intends to develop an expanded palette of colors as well as several specialty resins. Short-term, MakerBot offers more colors. Long-term, Formlabs hopes to offer plastic resins that cure with varied properties, such as varied transparency, flexibility, or melting point.
The Replicator 2 is a more affordable investment, both initially and over time. In terms of quality the Form 1 produces smoother prints, but you pay heftily for that ability. If it comes down to versatility, the Replicator 2’s larger print capacity and more mature community and support base help make it a better choice as your first 3D printer.
At the Maker Faire we overheard a MakerBot rep telling someone that “you don’t have to mess around with resin [with the Replicator 2].” This is true, and although heated PLA does not emit fumes to the same extent as ABS does, it is still recommended that you operate it in a ventilated environment. The Form 1 is fully enclosed during printing, but we probably wouldn’t want to handle or pour resin without ventilation either. Both seem to be equally suitable for home and office environments as long as you at least keep a window open.
Overall, both printers bring different things to the table and should provide for excellent and near effortless user experiences. Generally, the Replicator 2 seems to be the choice for those looking for versatility and lower raw materials costs, but the Form 1 offers better print quality.
Overall Winner: Replicator 2