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A "Universal Cartridge" For Form 2 3D Printers, But Should You Use It?

A "Universal Cartridge" For Form 2 3D Printers, But Should You Use It?

ProtoArt’s DIY Form 2 cartridge modification kit [Source: ProtoArt]

ProtoArt’s DIY Form 2 cartridge modification kit [Source: ProtoArt]

We’ve been pointed to a modification for Formlabs’ Form 2 cartridges that theoretically allows use of third party resins in Form 2 3D printers.

Formlabs is one of the leading vendors of 3D printing equipment, having started from a Kickstarter in 2012, growing through several rounds of investment and expansion that led to today’s giant: the company is one of few 3D printing “unicorns” valued at over $1 billion.

Their key product is resin 3D printers, specifically SLA-style devices that use lasers to selectively solidify photopolymer resin. The resin used in their equipment has largely been provided by Formlabs itself, creating another revenue stream for the company, but at the same time, allowing Formlabs to finely tune the print parameters for highly reliable and quality printing.

Form 2 Proprietary Materials

When the Form 2 was announced the company’s strategy subtly changed: they would deliver the machine with a requirement to use Formlabs resins via chipped cartridges, but also offer an experimental mode in which operators could use third party resins. The previous machine, the Form 1, did not have such requirements, and allowed the use of third party resins.

The community was concerned about the shift to proprietary resins by Formlabs, but those fears were allayed by the company providing a top-notch integration of software, hardware and materials. Their PreForm software is perhaps the slickest 3D print management system I’ve used and, when combined with direct knowledge of the materials, the entire system works incredibly well.

It works so well that Formlabs has sold a massive amount of equipment worldwide. Complaints about proprietary materials aside, their client base has voted with their wallet for this system.

ProtoArt Universal Cartridge

But now I see a company offering an approach to subvert Formlabs’ proprietary resin system with what they call a “Universal Cartridge”. ProtoArt explains:

“The universal cartridge enables you to print with any third party resin in closed mode on your Form 2 printer using any of the Formlabs resin profiles. The cartridge enables all functions like the heater, wiper and auto refill. These functions increase part accuracy and quality.”

Those functions are important. The wiper is used to slosh around the resin after each layer to ensure the resin is properly dispersed, “shaken up” and even. The heater maintains a precise temperature for the resin, which can increase printing or object properties to optimal levels. The auto refill is a system that detects when the resin tray is low on resin and automatically opens a valve to allow more resin to enter the tank. This means larger prints can be done completely unattended.

I did not know this, but according to ProtoArt, these three functions are disabled when in experimental mode on a Form 2. Thus there are some constraints on print quality and object size.

ProtoArt DIY Cartridge Kit

Strangely, ProtoArt does not supply an actual cartridge as the product; instead you are provided with a DIY kit where you must modify an existing, actual Formlabs cartridge. That’s what you see in the image at top. They say:

“The modification requires a basic understanding of drilling and soldering. To install a module, you need to drill three holes in a cleaned cartridge, solder two wires and glue the module in place.”

After doing this, you are apparently able to insert a cartridge into a Form 2 with any third party resin inside the container. ProtoArt says that such resins have been produced by Photocentric, ApplyLabWork, Digital Forge, 3DResyn and Molecule, among others.

ProtoArt is selling the cartridge modification kit for €70 (US$77).

The question is, should you be using this product?

3D Printer Cost vs Ease of Use

If your goal is to use third party resins because they might be cheaper, then perhaps this product is an option. However, I would question that approach because if you are able to afford a Form 2 device, you should be able to afford the associated resin.

If you really wanted inexpensive resin printing, there are machine options that are lower priced in which you can save money on materials and the machine itself. Remember, the Form 2 is targeting customers requiring high quality output with ease of use. That’s not the case with the lower-end machines.

In a way, we have two different machine philosophies colliding here: cheap & open & hard to use vs. more expensive & closed & easy to use. This is a situation involving low-cost, wide choice and ease-of-use; you may choose only two of those factors.

Some operators may be fearful of performing the modifications to the cartridge, and in some businesses this might actually be a taboo activity. For those situations, this product is not an option.

ProtoArt says that the modification is certified to work with Form 2 devices having firmware 1.19.11 installed. Does this mean it might not work if the firmware on the device is updated? What if Formlabs issued a new firmware level that somehow subverts the ProtoArt mechanism? In other words, the Universal Cartridge might not be eternal.

Exotic 3D Printer Resins

One benefit of a Universal Cartridge is that it could enable a Form 2 device to print third party resins that are not presently on Formlabs’ product shelf. But wait, you actually can print them already using the Open Mode, just not quite as well. I’ve heard Formlabs describe that mode as experimental, and I guess they mean it. Printing large quantities of unusual resins is not an experiment.

What this situation really indicates is that apparently some fraction of Form 2 users might want to use unusual resins that Formlabs does not offer. One way for Formlabs to circumvent this scenario is to simply offer more resins, then there will be little need for this product.

Via ProtoArt (Hat tip to Richard)

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