Most 3D printers today use the FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) process, which is also sometimes referred to by the proprietary FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) name. Those printers work by melting thermoplastic filament, and then extruding the plastic onto the build plate in layers. That process is quick, affordable, and produces relatively strong parts. But the SLA (Stereolithography) printing process generally yields higher quality results. SLA 3D printers used to be expensive, but the SparkMaker Original is very affordable, and I recently tested one out.
The SparkMaker Original launched on Kickstarter back in 2017, and it’s still one of the most inexpensive SLA 3D printers on the market. The SLA printing process works using photopolymer resin that hardens when it’s exposed to UV light. That light can come from lasers or from LEDs that are masked by an LCD screen. The latter method is cheaper, and is what the SparkMaker Original utilizes. The XY resolution is determined by the resolution of that LCD screen — 720p in this case.
On paper, the SparkMaker Original has some respectable specifications: a 98*55*125mm build volume, a 0.1mm XY resolution, a 0.02mm Z layer thickness, and a single layer print time of 8–15 seconds. There are a variety of resin types available depending on your intended applications, and the printer is very compact and desktop-friendly. But to find out if it’s actually any good, I had to test it out for myself.
The first thing I noticed is how small the SparkMaker Original is — the entire machine is roughly the size of a gallon jug. It came packaged securely in styrofoam with everything I needed to get started, including a bottle of standard LCD-BW resin. Best of all, no assembly was required. The only thing that needs to be done before printing is to level the build plate, which is a process that takes less than a minute.
After the build plate is leveled, you can use the free SparkStudio software to slice an STL 3D model and copy it over to the included SD card. The software is very simple, and comes pre-configured for the SparkMaker Original and a handful of their resin types. The only downside is that you can only have one printable file on the SD card at any given time, as it has to be called “print.wow” to work.
Once your model is sliced and on the SD card, you can insert it back into the 3D printer. Then follow the proper safety precautions to fill the reservoir with resin — it’s toxic, so be very careful and wear gloves and safety glasses. Strangely, the power switch is on the cord coming from the power supply, and there is no switch on the machine itself. Once it’s on, you just push the dial in to start the print. There is no screen, no way to select specific files, and no way to connect the printer to you computer.
After starting the print, be prepared to sit back and wait a long time. The process isn’t fast, even on the “fast” slicer settings, and I seriously doubt that “8–15 second” layer time specification is correct. The first model I printed, a Dungeons & Dragons figurine (pictured below) measures less than 50mm tall, and it still took approximately 7 hours to print on “balanced” settings. Unfortunately, even with that amount of time, I wasn’t impressed by the results.
It may be difficult to make out in the photo, but the fine details were muddled. SLA printers are supposed to be ideal for models exactly like this, but I can’t confidently say that the results from the SolidMaker Original were any better than from an FFF 3D printer. The main benefit is that there aren’t any noticeable layer lines.
I figured it might be possible that using the highest quality print setting would improve things, so I printed a second model using those. Sadly, as you can see in the picture below, the results really weren’t any better. As far as I can tell, changing the quality settings simply adjusts the layer height and does nothing for the XY resolution. So, once again, the fine details of the model were lost.
For one last test, I printed the sphere below. This one was printed on “fast” settings. This turned out well, likely because there were no fine details. This model is ideal for the smooth surfaces that the SparkMaker Original seems to want to produce.
But what if quality is less important to you than reliability? Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a strong point here either. Every other print job I tried completely failed. That was because the LCD window would become covered in a layer of semi-cured resin. In order to get a successful print, I had to completely empty the reservoir and then carefully peel off that layer of resin. That’s a tricky job considering the toxicity of the resin.
Finally, I have some nitpicks about the mechanical design of the machine. The most glaring is that the top of the build plate is completely flat, so resin will pool there. Virtually every other SLA printer has the top of the build plate sloped to avoid that, but it seems SparkMaker was cutting costs here. The protective UV-resistant cover also doesn’t have anything to hold it in place, so a bump can push it into the build plate.
At the end of the day, I can’t recommend the SparkMaker Original with a good conscience. It’s very affordable at just $249 (even less with a coupon), but there are other models on the market at comparable price points with better specifications, additional features, and more favorable reviews.