I am a small product manufacturer and have been working extensively with 3D printers as part of my business–both FDM, MSLA, and most recently SLA–since 2012. 3D-printed products have been integral to my business since 2014.
This is going to be a long post because I have spent countless hours trying desperately to love my Form 3 and justify all its flaws. Even before purchasing, I was a huge admirer of Formlabs products since their original Kickstarter campaign. And though I could not afford to support Formlabs at that time, I finally purchased a Form 3 in January of 2021, believing that the tightly-knit and mature ecosystem of patented hardware technologies and post-processing tools, along with local service for my US-based company, would ensure greater reliability compared to overseas MSLA manufacturers who appear to be on an annual hardware release cycle, making replacement parts somewhat difficult to obtain.
And so, at the start of the year, I purchased a Form 3 with a 3-year extended warranty, Form Wash, Form Cure, and the necessary consumables ensuring I would have a working ecosystem for at least the next three years.
Along with many cartridges and resin tanks of consumables, my spending with Formlabs this year has exceeded the amount I have spent on every other FDM and MSLA machine and consumable I have used since 2014, combined. For the cost, I expected much more from Formlabs than what I received.
A Bad Start:
My trouble started immediately upon receiving the Form 3. The touchscreen would not display unless power cycled repeatedly. Sometimes it would take several minutes of power cycling for the touchscreen to start working. Once working, it and everything else would continue to work until the machine was restarted or power cycled.
I have had to disassemble several of my MSLA machines upon receipt to reseat display connectors or resolve problems created by shipping, so I am comfortable with small repairs. I immediately opened the Form 3, performed a visual inspection and reseated the connectors to the touchscreen. This did not resolve the issue, so I contacted Formlabs the very next day after the machine was delivered and set up.
For my brand new Form 3 that was defective out of the box, Formlabs offered me the choice between waiting 6-8 weeks for a replacement touchscreen assembly that I could install myself, or a refurbished Form 3. Not wanting to exchange a brand new defective machine for a refurbished one, I opted to wait. After all, the touchscreen and machine continued to work as long as I did not restart or disconnect power.
The Limitations of a Walled Garden:
For the next four weeks of near-constant use, I quickly learned that the Form 3 was not what I had hoped. Formlabs has constrained the Form 3 in so many ways via software and hardware, such that there is almost no flexibility with respect to operating the machine in any way other than how Formlabs intends it to be used: add a model to Preform, use automatic supports and auto-orientation, print, follow all instructions on the touchscreen and support pages exactly. In other words, turn off your brain and trust Formlabs!
In my case, I print very small models in large batches directly to the build platform to avoid the extensive post-processing that would be required to remove support marks on small, functional parts that are designed to be handled and viewed at a close distance. The market for my products is extremely competitive, and so I really needed a solution that is highly efficient with respect to labor cost and uses a reliable hardware ecosystem for cost control.
I bought into Formlabs’s mature ecosystem believing I would be printing, washing, removing parts, curing, and repeating without any sacrifices or workarounds. I could not have been more wrong.
Limitation 1, Flashing/Skirting:
Having experience with several MSLA machines, I was unaware at just how limiting the walled garden of the Form ecosystem would be. I soon discovered with the Form 3 a design defect where the first layer would scatter onto the shiny build platform in such a way to leave a 0.1 mm thick layer “skirt” of cured material extending 2-3 mm around the part’s bottom. Formlabs support advised that my tank may be defective, and so they replaced it.
After the issue persisted, Formlabs acknowledged in an email that:
“under normal conditions, there is nothing that can be done to eliminate the flashing entirely; this is simply how the Form 3 works.”
The issue could be resolved by making the build platform absorb the laser light slightly so that it does not scatter. A hard-anodized build platform, dyed red, would absorb the UV light and likely eliminate the issue. However, modifying the build platform proved to be more difficult than expected, and so I resorted to ablating the underside of my parts with a CO2 laser to remove the unwanted material, adding additional, unexpected post-processing time to my parts.
Limitation 2, Part Removal:
Removal of parts printed directly to the build platform is also problematic. While flexible magnetic plates are a common modification to MSLA machines and make parts extremely easy to remove, the unusual position of the Z-limit switch at the top of the Form 3 makes this type of modification impossible, as the additional thickness of such a modification would interfere with the pre-print initilization process of checking for obstructions in the tank and on the platform. Neither can the build platform be machined to remove thickness to allow installation of such a system, as it is a hollow aluminum extrusion. Consequently, no company has designed an aftermarket build platform or build platform modification for the Form 2 or Form 3.
This is yet another constraint that meant that I would need some creative solution to removing my small parts printed directly onto the build platform. The solution I devised was to wash and cure the parts on the build platform, and then use a bench vice to apply controlled lateral compressive force to remove parts printed in large batches. While this works okay, it takes an unacceptable amount of additional time and carries the risk of damaging the parts because the adhesion to the build platform is so great.
Yet another option for part removal was to apply aluminum tape to the build platform, which could be removed after printing to somewhat easily remove the part. This also worked somewhat well, but again takes a great deal of time and adds material cost.
I have also read anecdotes about parts easily removed by chilling the build platform. While this works okay for some resin types, I found it to be inconsistent and not effective enough for small parts that have not yet been cured enough to be handled.
Limitation 3, Material Level Sensing:
I also discovered a severe technical limitation that should have been disclosed to me during my discussions with a Formlabs sales representative prior to purchasing. This is where the problems go from annoying to enraging:
The Form 3 needs to maintain a specific amount of resin in the tank. While this is completely understandable, the machine is not very smart about knowing how much resin is remaining in the cartridge or how much has been consumed during printing.
I found that the Form 3 greatly underestimates the amount of resin required for a print job, as the manner in which uncured resin adheres to complex part geometry is not taken well into account. Claims that the Form 3 has a sensor that weighs the cartridge also appear to be false. The resin consumption appears to be based on the print job information, and possibly nothing else. This is demonstrated by the fact that aborted or failed jobs “consume” the entirety of resin for the job.
The Form 3 constantly checks the resin level using a mechanical float sensor. Given how the viscosity of resin varies greatly depending on temperature, and the temperature set point is not reached before the sensing process, this can result in extremely inconsistent measurements, especially during colder weather.
Further, the resin tanks require nearly 400 mL of resin to reach the fill threshold. I informed my sales rep prior to purchasing that I would primarily be using the Color resins to produce parts of many different colors. My intention was to purchase a Color kit, mix a specific color for the entire 900 mL of resin, and then exhaust that resin as much as possible before making a new color with a separate kit. Because I was printing small parts, with a typical job requiring around 50 mL of material, I did not consider and was never made aware of how the machine operates when it detects that the tank is underfilled:
At the start of a print, the machine will check the resin level and attempt to add resin to the tank. Unless the fill level is reached, the process of adding resin to fill the tank continues for 30 minutes before prompting the user that the level is low and allowing the user to ignore the error and continue.
After the machine prints several starting layers, it will check the resin level again, and repeat the filling process and force the user to bypass the low-fill level warning several more times throughout the printing process. This behavior makes it virtually impossible to use the machine without having spare cartridges of resin on hand at all time. And for custom Color materials, this means that it is not possible to fully consume only one single cartridge of a custom color, as I will explain.
Upon researching the issue, I discovered multiple complaints here in the official Formlabs forum. In November, 2020, one user resorted to drawing and posting to this forum a satirical cartoon mocking Formlabs for the unfriendly design, insinuating that the machine behavior appears to have been employed by the sales team as a way to force users to always have a spare cartridge of resin for every material on hand.
Upon contacting Formlabs about this issue, I was informed:
“…even if you stopped using a material altogether, you would only be discarding about 300mL…”
In other words, for my particular case where I may only make one batch of a particular custom Color resin kit, I would only need to discard “about 300 mL” of the 900 mL kit! In my experience, the amount is closer to 400 mL resin remaining before the machine would tell me that the resin level was low and it needed a new cartridge, or force me to wait ad nauseam before allowing me to continue even the smallest job.
Upon replying to Formlabs, politely informing them that this is a serious user experience problem and that other users had resorted to drawing cartoons ridiculing their company for being so unfriendly to their users (and linking to the Formlabs forum post), a different Formlabs employee responded:
“I personally will not be entertaining emails with images evoking slavery and depicting our employees abusing users. We’re happy to work with you, but this is inappropriate and offensive. Continuing this behavior will result in this case being escalated and consideration for how we proceed with servicing for you will be discussed.
Again, happy to work with you if there’s an issue. If you are unable to refrain from the mentioned behavior or the product will not work for your needs, I can see what we can do. Please let me know how you would like to proceed. We’d like to continue troubleshooting with you.”
While I will not link the image that was originally posted to this forum, it is safe to say that this employee was grossly overstating the “offensiveness” of this harmless cartoon. Neither I nor the Formlabs user who created it had any idea it would trigger such an emotional response.
Nevertheless, shortly after this conversation in February 2021, someone at Formlabs quietly had the cartoon removed from the November 2020 Formlabs forum post. According to the author, nobody contacted him with an explanation for why it was removed.
I first want to clarify that the image I forwarded was created and posted by another user to your own community forums in November 2020. I even provided an inline link in my response, but it seems you did not see it:
The image was provided as an example of how other users have resorted to ridicule to express their frustration with this behavior. No one agrees with your newfound assertion that the resin fill level behavior is designed to “print safely.” I certainly do not, because I have experience using equipment that operates using similar technology. The community consensus is that the print behavior seems designed to annoy and inconvenience your customers into purchasing more of your materials. The FormlabsCommunity forums represent a minuscule fraction of FormLabs users and customers. If I and others are frustrated enough to post cartoons about it on your forums, the frustration is probably far deeper and more widespread than you may realize, particularly among new and low-volume users.
Your support pages are among the most helpful and well-made of any company producing any product in any industry. And nowhere in your support pages does it describe that a full Form 3 tank requires 350+ mL of resin, and that the machine will attempt to fill the tank for 30 minutes at the start of each print job before allowing the user to take action.
So imagine my surprise when my first cartridge of resin was exhausted, the dashboard said I had somewhere between 600-700 mL remaining, and the machine tried fruitlessly to fill the tank for half an hour before allowing me to continue printing a 3 mL job with what appeared to be a full 365 mL tank of resin. And the job after that, and the job after that. After researching your community forums and attempting to resolve the issue on my own, I came to you for help, and received an unhelpful and nebulous reply about how the behavior was to assure print quality. Now, you say it is about “printing safely.”
The feedback I left concerning my communications with Olivia was intended to be especially constructive; it would have been helpful to have been told about this behavior during our sales consultation when I discussed precisely how I intended to use the equipment–and especially the color resins–instead of being surprised, frustrated, and then insulted by the responses I have received from your company concerning this.
I think that threatening our business relationship over my reply has crossed a dangerous and disturbing line. I believe deeply that FormLabs is better than the attitude you represented in your reply, and your customers certainly deserve more. I hope that you can reply considerately to the points I and others have made in hopes of addressing these concerns.
A different Formlabs employee responded with an offer of one cartridge of free resin, but stated that the issue would not be resolved. This was simply how the machines work.
The following day, before I even had a chance to reply, the previous Formlabs employee scolded me a second time for the offense of linking to the official Formlabs forum post where the “offensive” image was published:
“I want to follow-up and again emphasize that relaying images (created by you or not) depicting slavery will have no more tolerance. Our employees will not be subject to that kind of ridicule, at this point, repeatedly. If you need help in the future and cannot refrain from forwarding inappropriate content, I will have to escalate this.”
In nearly 35 years before or since, I have never been admonished by a representative from a company with whom I had just spent thousands of dollars for the offense of linking to a post in their own community forums, or for any other reason.
In summary, I quickly learned over the course of several weeks of use and intense experimentation and collaboration that the constraints of Formlabs’s closed system were not going to save me any time or be more reliable than MSLA. In fact, the laser ablation and part removal would cost me even more time on top of the more expensive materials. I had likely made a very serious error in trusting that the Form 3 would offer any benefit to my particular business.
MSLA is not only a faster technology with the recent introduction of highly transparent and resilient “mono” screens, but the open design allows much more flexibility in creating a high-output, highly efficient workflow. Compared to the Form 3, the total cost of ownership for MSLA machines of equal build volume is cheaper to the point that it may be less expensive to buy a new MSLA machine when it breaks rather than bother with a repair or warranty.
And so, after March, I stopped using my Form 3 in order to contemplate a path forward.
The Saga Continues:
Today, after several months of non-use, I decided to use the machine to print a one-off part to modify one of my FDM machines.
After updating Preform and the machine firmware to the latest version, I went through the process of power cycling the machine for several minutes to get the touchscreen to display, as I opted to not replace it once I stopped using the machine earlier this March.
After performing all the regular maintenance such as installing a new resin tank, I started an 8-hour print job. 6 hours into the print job, the machine just stopped printing and displayed “Ready to Print” on the touchscreen. The Form 3 did not restart, the build platform did not raise, and there was no error message. It just stopped the job without any explanation. The Activity Feed in the Online Dashboard does not show the job as Aborted or Finished. But the Details page does show the job as finished. The job was not completed, and so the material and time was wasted.
I am now afraid to even use my Form 3 at all because there is no explanation for this most recent failure.
I recorded video of the issue and contacted Formlabs demanding they replace this lemon with a new machine. If I am going to continue to suffer as a Form 3 owner, they should at least give me a new, non-defective machine so I can at least suffer as they intended.
I will amend this post to update on my progress with my replacement and journey as a Formlabs admirer turned sufferer.