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A stunning 3D printer, capable of producing outstanding 3D prints. Liquid resin plastic means this isn't for everyone.
The Photon S is the follow-up to Anycubic’s wildly popular Photon, SLA 3D printer. This fully-enclosed 3D printer is perfect for producing highly detailed small models such as tabletop gaming miniatures. Retailing for $489 (but on sale for $100 less until 3rd November!), is it worth your money? Are the upgrades worthy of this new price tag when compared to its predecessor, and what makes SLA 3D printers better than traditional Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) designs?
Let’s find out.
At the end of this review, we’ve got a brand new Photon S to giveaway thanks to our friends at Anycubic. Read on to find out how to win, and be sure to watch all of the review video for some bonus entries.
How the Photon S Works
While FDM 3D printers cost as little as $100, SLA technology is still relatively new for consumers, so is only starting to trickle down to an affordable price range. SLA 3D printing uses a vat of liquid plastic, which gets cured through the use of an LCD screen and a series of UV LEDs. When exposed to a specific wavelength of UV light, the resin solidifies. By using an LCD screen (like you’d find in your laptop), it’s possible to mask a UV LED to produce specific shapes. Stack enough of these cured layers together and the end result is a 3D printed part.
Contrast this with FDM 3D printing, which heats up spaghetti-like plastic into molten goop, and draws shapes with it, much like piping icing onto a cake. SLA 3D printing provides several benefits over FDM. SLA 3D printing can cure a whole layer at once, so if you’re printing ten objects at once, it takes no longer than producing one part. They have less moving parts, and are capable of far higher precision than FDM, with almost invisible layer lines at times.
Naturally, SLA printers are more expensive than FDM, and the plastic resin can be as much as 4-5x more expensive than FDM filament. You also have to keep uncured resin out of direct light, and it can be a messy product to work with.
Both SLA and FDM printers are tools to solve a problem, and there’s no definitive “best” method of 3D printing. SLA 3D printers are capable of stunning print quality, with relatively little effort when compared to FDM printers. FDM printers can produce very high-quality prints, but they often involve far more mechanical and software components.
Specifications and Design
The Photon S is a sleek, compact unit. It’s small enough to fit on most desks and the futuristic door opens to reveal your printed parts like something from the Blade Runner universe. It sports a color touchscreen on the front panel and operates from the included USB drive. It’s not possible to operate this machine over the network, or tethered to a computer–you must use a flash drive.
This printer features a dual linear rail for its Z-axis, as this is the only moving part. Other models (including the original Photon) only use a single linear rail, so this significant upgrade should result in less Z wobble when printing, leading to more accurate prints.
The Photon S features:
- 0.78in (20mm) per hour printing speed
- 13lbs (5.9kg) weight
- 2560 x 1440 pixel LCD display
- 25-100 micron layer resolution
- 4.5in x 2.6in x 6in (115mm x 65mm x 165mm) build volume
- 50W UV output
- 9in x 7.9in x 15.8in (230mm x 200mm x 400mm) total dimensions
On the surface, these specifications appear rather pathetic, especially the small build volume. This is typical of an SLA printer, and due to the nature of liquid plastic and resin vats, it could be expensive to use a large-format SLA printer.
The maximum printing speed of 0.78in/hour refers to the Z-axis and is about on par with other SLA printers. On average, prints take between 5-6 hours, with taller models taking between 10-15 hours. Remember though, that you can increase the dimensions or number of models in both the X and Y axis with no impact on the print speed. A 50W UV output is excellent and is a step-up from the 30 or 40W bulbs found on similar models. More power here can cure resin faster, theoretically resulting in faster print times.
This machine features dual fans to extract fumes from the print chamber, but these use an activated charcoal filter to reduce the strong plastic smell associated with liquid resin. I don’t mind the smell, but family members often comment on it. I print with a window open which reduces the fumes (and helps to reduce any potential health issues). You may not want to sleep with this printer running in the same room, not least because of the noise it makes.
Inside the box, you’ll find a selection of tools, 250ml of resin, several dust masks, several coffee filters (for straining resin when emptying the tank), a few pairs of rubber gloves, some spare parts, a plastic scraper (for removing prints), and an instruction manual.
First Prints with the Photon S
As an owner of the original Photon, I knew the configuration required to get a machine working. While it’s not too difficult to get the Photon S up and running, the process can be confusing for a beginner, and the sometimes incoherent instructions in broken English don’t help the process.
Before starting any prints you must level the bed. Unlike most FDM printers, SLA printers pull the bed up out of a pool of resin, gradually exposing the print. They still work from the bottom up, but generally, are upside down. The bed must be parallel to the LCD surface, and it needs calibrating to a very precise distance.
This process is simple enough in practice — unscrew the two retaining bolts holding the resin vat in and place the vat in a safe location. After this, use the included tools to loosen the bed screw, and use the touchscreen to home the Z-axis. Next, place a sheet of paper between the bed and the LCD, and adjust the distance until you feel friction on the paper. Hold the bed square and tighten the screws again. This is a simple process in theory, but the required pressure on the paper is not clear until you have repeated the process several times, and scoured the internet for tutorial videos.
You don’t need to level the bed often, fortunately. Once leveled, you can reinstall the vat, pour some resin in, and get ready to print. Using the supplied USB drive, you can print a test model. It’s fascinating to see the bed dunk itself into the liquid plastic again and again. In a few short hours, you’ll have a 3D printed model, ready to clean up.
As prints get submerged in a bath of liquid resin, they need some cleaning up after printing. This is something not required with FDM printers. You need to use strong alcohol such as 99.9% Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol to clean off any uncured resin. After this, you need to clean off any remaining alcohol. Finally, you need to allow the prints to finish curing, either by sitting in direct sunlight for several hours (or less depending on your location), or by using a UV curing station such as those found at nail salons.
This process isn’t complicated and after one or two attempts you’ll soon get the hang of it, but it’s all extra work and requires equipment besides the printer itself. You’ll need to wear gloves during all this, as the resin is sticky stuff, which can make a mess of anything you transfer it to. It’s not recommended to let the resin touch your bare skin or eyes.
Slicing Your Own Models
The Photon S comes with a software package to convert your 3D models into printer instructions. This tool lets you configure the layer height, exposure time, placement of models and support structures, and more. It’s basic but gets the job done.
Unlike FDM printing, SLA prints do not have a hollow support structure inside — they remain completely solid. Because of this, it can be expensive to print large objects. Many people adapt their models by hollowing them out, but this presents other challenges. Not only do you need to learn how to do this, but you need to produce port holes to allow the resin to drain out, otherwise you’ll have trapped, uncured resin inside your sealed model.
Stunning Print Quality
The Photon S produces stunning prints. It’s almost impossible to see any layer lines at all, even on the coarsest setting of 100-microns (0.0039in/0.1mm) layer height. This is the biggest selling point of the Photon S, and it’s so worth it. If you’re frustrated with FDM print quality or want the absolute best quality from a machine, then this is where resin and SLA shines.
Moving up to 25-micron layer heights (0.00098in/0.025mm) produces jaw-dropping prints but at the expense of print time. You can expect to spend close to 20 hours of machine time on a 1-inch figure printed at 25 microns. While the quality is outstanding at this level, it’s not worth the time investment for 99% of models, as coarser settings are still mind-blowing.
Prints are easy to paint, and you can buy a variety of different resins, from brittle to flexible, and those suitable for casting metal. Different resins need different curing times, however. Translucent resins let more light pass through and so on.
The Photon S is perfect for printing minis for wargaming, or other small yet detailed parts. This machine is almost a new era of 3D printing, whereby machines are closer to plug-and-play than ever before, and the quality starts to approach commercial manufacturing levels. Take a look at these fantasy RPG models for some miniature inspiration.
Should You Buy the Photon S?
The Photon S is a stunning 3D printer. The quality of prints produced by this machine far exceeds any other style of printer. That said, the price of $489 is on the high side when compared to other entry-level SLA printers, and SLA printing is not suitable for everyone. The resin can smell, and you need to be careful around powerful lights, lest you cure your resin. Prints need cleaning up afterward, and large parts are difficult to print.
If you’re prepared for the cleanup process, and the Photon S suits your style of 3D printing, then you will be very happy with this machine. The print quality alone is the biggest selling point. While the instruction manual could be clearer, you’ll have a print up and running within an hour, and there is a large online community for this little machine should you encounter any problems.
Don’t forget to read our beginner’s guide to 3D printing to ensure you don’t miss a step, or if you prefer a more in-depth guide, then our comprehensive ultimate 3D printing guide will answer all your questions.
Thanks to our friends at Anycubic, we have a brand new Photon S to giveaway. All you have to do is enter our giveaway contest below, and make sure you read the instructions for the chance to enter more than once. If you can’t wait for our contest to end, the Photon S is on sale for less than $400 until November 3rd!