Why 2014 could be the year of the light-based 3D printer

If you have ever seen a desktop 3D printer, chances are good that it worked by melting strings of plastic and then laying down the resulting goo layer by layer. This is called fused deposition modeling (FDM, or sometimes called fused filament fabrication), and it has always been the most popular personal 3D printer technology.

But that might be changing. Stereolithography and digital light processing, which use a laser and projector, respectively, to cure liquid resin layer by layer, has been experiencing a boom similar to the one FDM printers went through just a few years ago. Prices are dropping and options are expanding. 2014 could very well be the year that FDM manufacturers start to worry.

Completed 3D prints rise out of a resin bath on a Solidator 3D printer. Photo courtesy of Tangible Engineering Corporation.

Completed 3D prints rise out of a resin bath on a Solidator 3D printer. Photo courtesy of Tangible Engineering Corporation.

Formlabs starts it all

The first SLA printer was developed back in the 1980s by Charles Hull. He later used the technology to found 3D Systems, which has since grown to be one of the two 3D printing giants in the U.S. But like other forms of 3D printing, it had to wait until the personal 3D printing explosion to gain any kind of public awareness. Its big debut came as the Formlabs Form 1, a desktop SLA machine built by MIT Media Lab veterans. The printer hit Kickstarter in September 2012 and raised nearly $3 million in a month.

While the printer shipped to backers several months late, it was met with positive reviews and is now available for order online for $3,299. It had contemporaries, but, for a year, it was the personal SLA printer. Investors agreed and poured $19 million in Series A funding into Formlabs in October.


The Form 1 3D Printer. Photo courtesy of Formlabs.

That kind of success doesn’t go unnoticed. 3D Systems sued Formlabs in November 2012, stating that while older SLA patents had expired, Formlabs had violated newer patents covering improvements to the printing method. The two companies are now in settlement talks.

The suit did little to dampen the fledgling segment of 3D printers.

“I think there’s going to be more of everything. You’re going to see new printers, you’re going to see new materials, you’re going to see new processes,” Formlabs community manager Sam Jacoby told me last summer. “The whole ecosystem is just developing really, really fast.”

He was right. The ecosystem did develop really, really fast. Riding SLA’s visibility, DLP printers have also found a new foothold in the industry.

Invasion of the SLA/DLP printers

In 2012, we saw the introduction of the Form 1, B9 Creator and many more DIY options. In 2013, there around five semi-successful printers on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, plus the more interesting $100 Peachy Printer and portable LumiFold.

The Pegasus Touch SLA 3D printer. Photo courtesy of Full Spectrum Laser.

The Pegasus Touch SLA 3D printer. Photo courtesy of Full Spectrum Laser.

The printers already planned for 2014 are a much stronger group. There’s the Solidator, Pegasus Touch, OWL Nano and LightForge, all of which look like they could rival or beat the Form 1. And there are sure to be many, many more options this year.

This is good news. SLA and DLP printers are capable of printing higher quality items at a greater speed than FDM printers. The OWL Nano, for example, can print at a resolution of up to .1 microns. MakerBot’s new top of the line Z18 3D printer prints at 100 microns. An SLA laser can also move faster than an FDM printer’s print head, while DLP printers can cure an entire layer of material at once.

Their big setback is that they are much more expensive, both in the price for the machine and for the resin in which they print. Some of the machines introduced at CES approach $5,000 in price, and resin can run $150 a bottle. But a rise in popularity will both bring increased access to the machines and help push the price down further, just like what happened with FDM printers over the last few years. And the technologies already have a few sub-$1,000 options in the Peachy and LumiFold.

I asked MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis last October if the famed desktop printer maker had any plans to branch into technologies beyond FDM. He answered that he saw the FDM printer as the ultimate household machine; PLA plastic is nontoxic and easier to feed into a machine than icky resin. You don’t have to worry about sitting a kid down in front of an FDM machine.

For the most part, I agree: the FDM printer has a place in the family home that will be hard to compete with. Still, I don’t think it’s too far off that the cartridge-based SLA/DLP printer becomes standard, cutting out contact with the resin, much like how we interact with ink-based 2D printers today. And for artisans, hobbyists and other users who need a machine that prints at a higher quality, SLA and DLP printers are likely to become more and more attractive options.