3D printing has become more and more popular in the consumer market. With so many free designs online for printable plastic parts, it’s incredible how much utility anyone can get out of one of these 3D printers. There’s only so much they can do, however. Most printers are limited to printing one type of plastic, and even some of the best modern extruders have unimpressive precision.
The first consumer 3D printers functioned using hot extruders. These printers work with two main components. The printer has a heated nozzle through which hot plastic is pushed. Once the plastic cools, it becomes part of the final printed form. Somewhere on the printer is also located an extruder, which contains gears to push the plastic forward through the nozzle with appropriate timing. A computer attached to the printer decides the three dimensional location of the nozzle with respect to the base of the printer, called the printing bed. This could mean moving the nozzle over top of a stationary bed or moving a bed under a stationary nozzle.
Some extruder printers have additional interesting features. ABS printers in particular often have heated printing beds to ensure the first few layers of a print stick to the base effectively. Some printers have fans to cool plastic as soon as it is extruded, which can help ensure the print stays in its intended form instead of being warped after extrusion. Other printers can even print in multiple filament colors in one print, exchanging plastic colors automatically instead of requiring an operator to be present at the right points during the print.
Most of the 3D printing community has made designs with the understanding that fellow printer owners have access to one of these plastic extrusion printers. Extruders are the most common type of 3D printer, so this makes sense. But recently, consumers have been given access to a new type of 3D printing through new companies like Formlabs.
Stereolithography is a 3D printing technology that works differently from traditional plastic extrusion. The printer contains a thin layer of liquid resin. To print a layer of the final product, a laser is pointed at the appropriate spot to harden the resin. The hardened resin fuses with any previous layers of the object, and the entire object is moved slightly to accommodate printing the next layer.
Because only a beam of light is touching the object, stereolithography (SLA) can be much more precise than extrusion. Extrusion nozzles need to be able to move freely within a layer, and they’re often rather clunky. It is more difficult to engineer an effective nozzle with a very small radius than to direct a beam of light, so SLA prints often have precision unimaginable in extrusion printing.
One of the biggest problems with SLA printing, however, is the availability of resin. In the extrusion printing world, it’s easy to find ABS and PLA plastic filament that is compatible with standard print nozzles and extruders. There are lots of different kinds of filaments from lots of different brands. Some brands are well-known for plastic quality; others are relatively inexpensive. Some filament manufacturers make their filament from eco-friendly plastics. Some companies offer exotic colors, and there are even glow-in-the-dark filaments available for these printers.
But the SLA resin used in the Formlabs SLA printer, for example, is proprietary. You are expected to buy resin directly from Formlabs if you want to use their printers. Formlabs offers four different types of resin. The standard resin is available in four neutral colors (white, black, grey, and clear), and the other resins (casting, flexible, and tough) are only available in single colors. Formlabs representatives do unofficially acknowledge that some third-party resins can provide good results with their printers, but this is still a massively different ecosystem from extrusion printers.
SLA is an exciting technology, and as it decreases in price, it will see more adoption from consumers. Perhaps the best thing that can happen to the industry now is opening up resin development to everyone.
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