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Stereolitography

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Stereolithography (SLA) is widely recognized as the first 3D printing process; it was certainly the first to be commercialized. SL is a laser-based process that works with photopolymer resins that react with the laser and cure to form a solid in a very precise way to produce very accurate parts. It is a complex process, but simply put, the photopolymer resin is held in a vat with a movable platform inside. A laser beam is directed in the X-Y axes across the surface of the resin according to the 3D data supplied to the machine (the .stl file), whereby the resin hardens precisely where the laser hits the surface.

Once the layer is completed, the platform within the vat drops down by a fraction (in the Z axis) and the subsequent layer is traced out by the laser. This continues until the entire object is completed and the platform can be raised out of the vat for removal.

Because of the nature of the SL process, it requires support structures for some parts, specifically those with overhangs or undercuts. These structures need to be manually removed.

In terms of other post processing steps, many objects 3D printed using SL need to be cleaned and cured. Curing involves subjecting the part to intense light in an oven-like machine to fully harden the resin.

Stereolithography is generally accepted as being one of the most accurate 3D printing processes with excellent surface finish. However limiting factors include the post-processing steps required and the stability of the materials over time, which can become more brittle.

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