3D printers have come a long way since the early days of RepRap and DIY hacker culture. First they flew to great heights with companies like MakerBot and Formlabs, which aimed to create a prosumer product for designers, educators and makers. Then they fell to the doldrums when they became commodity hardware. Many people believed the space was dead.
Now, however, the Polish 3D-printing company, Zortrax, has released their Inkspire UV LCD printer, a $2,000 SLA printer that offers the speed and quality of resin-based printers with the fit and finish of a carefully designed piece of hardware.
The Inkspire works by shooting a bright blast of UV light through photosensitive resin. The printer creates objects layer by layer at a resolution and quality that you’d never achieve with traditional extrusion printers. The Inkspire is so precise it can print a 50x50x25 micro cube, yet it also can build larger objects that look completely smooth.
Like other so-called stereo lithographic (SLA) printers, the resin is tricky to work with. The printer works with nearly any resin that cures under 405 nm wavelength light so you don’t have to use Zortrax’s products. That said, the objects that come out of this printer are fairly difficult to “finish,” primarily because they stay sticky for a while until they finish curing in direct sunlight. The uncured resin itself is also quite sticky and messy so this printer definitely requires some sort of separate workshop with a slop sink and room for the printer and ultrasonic cleaner. You can use this in a home office or other enclosed space, but you’ll want to keep the windows open and gloves on your hands.
That said, once the items are washed, cured and dry they are almost indistinguishable from injection-molded parts.
The $2,000 printer comes with the print bed, a UV shield and an optional ultrasonic cleaner — essentially an off-the-shelf ultrasonic cleaning vat that vibrates the objects in order to scrub them. Zortrax also includes their very powerful Z-Suite software. The software will automatically generate and slice the 3D objects, preparing them for printing. Because it prints in-reverse — the object grows out of the resin and hangs off of the build plate like a bat — each object requires a set of specialized supports that are easy to remove.
Zortrax’s solution is quite elegant. Because their resin is fairly innocuous it doesn’t require dangerous chemicals to finish and the curing process is quick and painless. The entire product is nicely packaged and the maximum build size is 2.9 x 5.2 x 6.9 inches.
This 3D printer is also much faster than you would expect, shooting out most smaller parts in less than an hour. Because the printer is so precise you can easily print multiple copies of the same object, creating a mini assembly line. You also can print large, solid objects that can stand up to much more abuse than FDM-printed objects.
Again, the Inkspire isn’t for the casual 3D-printer user. Because the resin can get messy and the entire package requires good ventilation and access to water, this thing would work best in a design studio or workshop. That said, this is a desktop printer and you can easily leave it in an undisturbed corner and carefully take the finished build plate to a nearby water source for cleaning. It’s just a little bit harder.
SLA printers are powerful, and Zortrax has made a truly usable and useful one. It’s fast, compact and easy to use and it shows just how far the prosumer 3D-printing market has come in a few short years.