|The World of 3D Printing|
|3D printing is a fascinating new technology and an exploding new market. The process involved is pretty basic actually. Heat up some plastic, and sort of like that Play-Doh Fun Factory you were so fond of as a kid, you extrude the melted plastic out to create objects of magnificence -- because you built it yourself. However, 3D printers are much more akin to their cousin the 2D inkjet printer, though objects are being printed not only on the traditional X-Y plane but with that magical third "Z" dimension of height. In addition, advancements in 3D CAD software packages like Google SketchUp (now a product of Trimble) are making it increasingly easier for the novice DIY designer and budding 3D model artist to make their own designs a reality.
It all started back in 2007 when the first RepRap machine was built. The idea behind RepRap was to design a machine that could build complex parts in three dimensions using extruded molten plastic and that machine could also "self-replicate" or build a copy of itself. Also, RepRap is a fully open source project that draws on the collective resources of its community to further advance the technology and the vision of the "Self Replicating Machine."
Since then 3D printers of all types have emerged from the community, from almost household names like MakerBot, (one of the largest player in this space, now a proprietary product) to the likes of Solidoodle, PP3DP, and 3D Systems, a pioneer in StereoLithography that invented the STL file format. STL is also known as Standard Tessellation Language and it's the file format that is widely used for 3D printers, like all of the machines we're going to show you here in this review. Gamers, you may recall the word "tessellation", as it is a key feature in DirectX 11 and OpenGL 3D graphics rendering. Tessellation helps define datasets for rendering 3D structures in the virtual world as well as the real world, in the case of 3D printing. See how it all ties in? Kinda cool, huh?
We thought so too. So we decided to reach out to a few of the more prominent names in 3D printing and do our usual round-up two step with them. Unfortunately, the folks at MakerBot were either too busy getting their Rep 2 system off the ground or putting together fancy marketing campaigns for it, so we weren't able to get that machine in but we may come back to it another day. However, we do have systems in from Solidoodle with the Solidoodle 2, PP3DP with their Up! Mini, and 3D Systems, the godfather of STL, with their Cube 3D. First, let's give you a quick guided tour of these machines, then we'll do our usual deep dive.
Virtual 3D objects have graced the pages of HotHardware many times over the years. Now, it's about to get real...
3D System's Cube 3D Printer - $1299 MSRP
PP3DP's UP! Mini 3D Printer - $899 MSRP
Solidoodle 2 "Expert" 3D Printer - $699 MSRP (as low as $499 base)
What's perhaps more interesting about the trio of printers we have here is that they represent three different price points and, in some respects, three slightly different approaches to consumer-level 3D printing solutions. The Cube 3D is sort of the "Apple" of the group. It's easiest to work with and setup, very reliable, looks good and just works. It's also the most expensive of the three. The Up! Mini is in the mid-range, both in terms of price point and ease of use and the Solidoodle 2 can be had for as little as $499. The SD2 is a tinkerer's dream and more closely follows the RepRap model with a no frills design.
|3D System's Cube 3D Printer|
|Some of you that are new to 3D printing may think of the folks at MakerBot as pioneers of the technology, and it's true, members of the company did organize the "RepRap" movement but 3D Systems and its founder/inventor Chuck Hull, really started it all way back in 1986 with stereolithography and the STL file format. Good ol' Chuck is the original patent holder of the first SLA system that is very much akin to the additive process used in modern plastic extrusion-based 3D printers. And so it's fitting that we've got the Cube 3D here in our round-up from none other than 3D Systems.
The Cube 3D is a highly refined piece of equipment and one of the easiest printers in our round-up to work with. 3D Systems clearly set out to make things as straight-forward as possible for novice users with this machine. As such, we had zero problem setting it up and were off to the races printing up a storm in no time with this machine. There's no leveling of the print bed or complicated fine-tuning required. You just set the print head height by calibrating the distance from the print bed with a piece of paper, plug in the plastic filament cartridge and you're good to go.
The basic specs of the Cube 3D are not cutting-edge but they are competitive. The Cube will print down to a layer height of .25mm or 250 microns. This is definitely tight enough to produce solid, clean prints, though there are other machines on the market capable of resolutions down to .1mm. Where the Cube does stand out is with its 802.11 WiFi connectivity option, a welcomed feature that will allow you to set up the Cube like any other printer in your office or home and share the device to any PC within range.
Loading up ABD filament is also a snap (literally) thanks to the Cube's cartridge design. The cartridge has metal contacts on it that connect it to the device and auto-feeds the print head. Again, it makes for very easy setup but significantly more expensive consumables. 3D Systems sells cartridges on their site for $50 for 1pc, a pack of 3 for $139, 5 for $219 or 7 for $308. A cartridge is enough to build 13 - 14 "mid-sized creations." Comparatively, a 2 pound reel of white ABS will cost you about $30 - $40 on line and that's a lot more material. The Cube also offers a simple touchscreen interface for assisting in setup of the printer on a network and calibrating print head height. You can also print from the menu options here and input STL files for conversion to Cubify format in the printer's software package, via a USB stick.
The Cube's print bed is mid-sized for our group, at 5.5-inches cubed, which allows for decent-sized creations. Comparatively, the Up! Mini has a 4.75-inch3 print bed and the Solidoodle 2 is 6-inches3. Again, the really nice feature of the Cube's print bed is its alignment and leveling mechanism. The bed is removable for easy cleaning but snaps back into place perfectly with keyed and magnetized positioning. It just works.
The other thing that just works with the Cube is 3D System's Cubify software package. It has a very simple, intuitive user interface that allows any novice to load up models, position them on the print bed, scale them in size and then just hit print.
3D System's Cubify Client Software
The Cubify client software does, however, require you to import any standard STL file into Cube file format. It's a simple enough process and you can pull models in from any 3D package, free sources like MakerBot's Thingiverse site and of course the models page at Cubify.com. Some of the models at Cubify are free but 3D Systems also sells designs from various partners for a wide variety of things.
The other downside to the Cube and Cubify software package is that it doesn't allow you to make some basic adjustments and tweaks in its settings menu for things like layer thickness (.25mm is preset and can't be changed), print speed and infill support. For the advanced user or someone that wants to tinker, this could be a major limitation. However, for the average mainstream user, the factory presets work really well and the build precision and quality is quite good.
|The Up! Mini 3D Printer|
|The Up! Mini by PP3DP.com and Delta Micro Factory Corp. is another printer that is designed to be easy for consumers to use, as well as functional, with good-looking design aesthetics. The Up! Mini offers a fully enclosed design that comes with all the tools and equipment you could ever need to setup your own little 3D print shop, right on down to the work gloves you'll need to observe proper safety precautions.
The Up! Mini has a full enclosure design that offers both acoustic and thermal advantages. While printing, to minimize noise you can close the access doors (open here) and things quiet down nicely. There's an added side benefit of more stable ambient air temperature around the print bed when these doors are closed too, which also speeds up warm-up time. However, the printer does emit a loud, semi-annoying "BEEP" as indicators that the machine is warmed up and about to print.
The Mini also comes with a 1.5lb spool of white ABS filament which is more than enough material for dozens of prints depending on model size. This spool is roughly a $40 - $50 value. Beyond that, setup is fairly straight-forward and this 3D printer is easier than most to work with, especially for the novice user. The default print setting on the machine is .25mm or 250 micron, which produces very clean builds over all.
The rear of the Mini is home to a simple bulk spool holder and filament guide mechanism, both of which were obviously printed by another Up! 3D printer product; a casual nod to the RepRap tradition and self-replicating vision of old. The Mini comes with removable "perf boards" that are placed on its heated print bed, which offers a 4.72-inch (cubed) build area. We do wish the build area was just a bit larger; closer to six inches would be nice. PP3dp does offer the Up Plus for $1299, which offers a 5.5-inch build space.
Leveling the print bed on the Mini proved to be a bit tricky for us on occasion, though it was only after the machine went out of calibration after a few successful prints. PP3dp suggests you reference this thread in their forum should you have issues with print bed leveling/ Or, when in doubt you could always *gasp* read the manual.
UP! V1.17 Software
The Up! software tool strikes a nice balance of ease of use with its icon and menu-driven UI, along with customizable settings for print resolution (.2mm is as fine as you can print), base or "raft" height, infill, support structures and more. Stability supports and base constructs specifically come in handy with taller, skinny objects where toppling on the print bed can be a real nuisance. That said, for some reason support structures can't be completely disabled. It would be nice if PP3dp would include this in future revisions. All told, the Up version 1.17 software we felt was the best of the bunch, with just the right amount of configurability, but not so much that you find yourself tweaking every little setting to get things right, and an intuitive user interface that even first timers can work with relatively easily.
|Solidoodle 2 Expert 3D Printer|
|Solidoodle is another veteran of the industry and though they just introduced their Solidoodle 3 printer, we're taking a look at their second generation unit, the Solidoodle 2. The primary difference between the two systems is that the SD 2 offers a 6-inch print bed, while the SD3 offers a larger 8-inch bed.
The Solidoodle 2 more closely follows a classic RepRap design, with its standard XYZ rod frame design and square box construction. Typically you see these sorts of machines cut from thin wood, though Solidoodle's sheet metal frame offers a sturdier construction.
Standard Features: Base Model $499: Pro Model $599: Expert Model $699: In the Box: Tech Specs: Software:
Base Model $499:
Pro Model $599:
Expert Model $699:
In the Box:
The interesting thing about the Solidoodle 2 is that this machine is very much open to tweaks, modifications and applying your own methods to get the quality builds you desire. The print bed is spacious as well, offering the largest build area of our trio of machines at 6-inches cubed.
The SD2 came with print platform film that gets applied to the metal bed and offers a tacky surface for building on. We had a few issues keeping this film tacky enough to support thin, taller builds like our Empire State Building model, and keep them from toppling over during production. There is a lot of room to move around and adjust things in here though, so you can fiddle to your heart's content to get things just right and even try different materials to dress the build surface.
The spool holder for the SD2 gave us a bit of a chuckle. It's simple PVC piping, though its plastic frame mount is clearly built on a Solidoodle machine. The control module on the backside is power by an Arduino processor and as such firmware updates can be easily applied for future optimizations from Solidoodle. As you can see, there are simple 3 and 4 pin headers on the control module that wires for motor controls connect to. It's a very straight-forward design that is easily serviced and tweaked if you're so inclined.
The Repetier Host software, that Solidoodle now recommends for use with their machines, is completely free and open source, so there are frequent updates to the package. Solidoodle also provided .1mm and .3mm printer config files to help with some pre-configuration. In reality we still had to tweak some of the knobs like print head speed, build platform temperature and extruder temperature, manually, to get thing just right for some of our more challenging prints. Regardless, again, especially if you know what you're doing, this software is very versatile and offers the highest level of customization in our round-up. It's just not nearly as intuitive as the Cubify client or the Up! software suite. In the end, for us, it actually turned out to be a nice education in 3D printing.
|Models On The Catwalk|
|To get a good baseline on all three printers, we picked three models that we were able to print relatively easily on all of the machines. First, the most basic model used was the Companion Cube, a popular game piece from Valve's Portal game series. This model is a simple cube, but still gives a good view of print quality with some fine detailed design located on the surface area of the model. Next we chose the well know Kool-Aid Man that really pushes the printers to there limits when it comes to printing overhanging structures. Lastly we have the Empire State Building which displays the printer's ability to print narrow, precise objects.
UP! Mini Model Samples
UP! Mini Model Samples
After finishing all of the prints on the UP! Mini, a consistent pattern of overall precision was noticed. The Companion Cube model came out nearly perfect. The base of the print was clean without any warping. The other surfaces of the model were perfect as well. The only real issue that was found was the fact that one of the faces of the cube is discolored from the filament darkening. After seeing the Mini's overall quality of work, it was no surprise that the Kool-Aid Man was also the best version of that model out of the bunch. All of the major overhangs were printed with support material which helped in most areas. That said, there was an area in the bottom torso that simply was pushing the printer out of its comfort zone. The layers in this area were warped and mostly uneven. This was common across all printers actually. Other than that, the Kool-Aid Man, for the Up! Mini, was still a very respectable print. Finally the Empire State Building print from the UP! is again one of the nicest versions of the three prints we saw. Throughout the whole model, all of the layers are neat and reflect the core STL file very well.
Cube 3D Model Samples
Cube 3D Model Samples
The Cube 3D printer produced good mid-range models. The Companion Cube came out nearly flawless and showed no imperfections at the base or sides of the print. The Kool-Aid Man was a different story. The majority of the surfaces of the model came out on par with the other printers. However, we had issues in the the same torso area that the UP! had issues in, as well as the overhanging structures at the bottom of the hands. In comparison to the Up! Mini, the torso area was generally a bit more flawed. Certain layers decided to droop and melt out of place while others simply didn't stick that well. The hands were a very steep overhang that left layers to deal with the laws of gravity, separating from the rest of the print. In total, this print had a overall acceptable quality but had its share of imperfections, just like the rest of the printers. Lastly the Empire State Building print, which seemed to be one of the more challenging prints, was produced in near perfect quality on the Cube until it reached the final stage consisting of the layers at the peak of the structure. The peak wasn't necessarily messy per se, but was not as sharp as all of the other printers' versions of this model.
Solidoodle 2 Model Samples
Solidoodle 2 Model Samples
The quality of all of the Solidoodle's prints were generally acceptable but if you are looking for a perfect finish on all surfaces, a lot of fine tuning is required. The Companion Cube was easily comparable to the others. The only visible imperfection was slight warping of a corner of the base. Nevertheless, the layers of the print were neat and uniform throughout. The Kool-Aid man was again a challenge though. As we saw with other builds of this model, the front and back surfaces were neat but the arms, legs, and lip of the jug had a rough appearance to them. The torso area had the re-occurring problem of layers becoming wavy but it wasn't as sloppy as the Cube's version. The arm overhangs also were neater than the Cubes. Sadly, because most of the main edges were rough and uneven, the overall quality wasn't the same as the other printers, but still easily recognizable as the Kool-Aid Man.
Finally the the Empire State building turned out to be a good middle compromise between all of the printers. The main neck of the print consisted of layers that were uniform throughout and looked crisp. The base had some warping which threw the overall quality of the print off. This was indicative of the Solidoodle's challenging setup requirement. For tall, thin models like this, you really have to ensure the base adheres well to the print bed, otherwise you end up with movement during the print or even a situation where the model just topples over. The last section of the print, the tip of the tower, turned out to be the sharpest of the bunch and displayed a nice finishing touch.
You may notice that we printed two versions of this model; one produced at .3mm (the Solidoodle's recommended default setting) and another at .15mm (a much higher resolution layer thickness). As you can see in the right-most version of the build in this shot, the finer print pitch really does this model justice. In the end, the Solidoodle produces decent prints right out of the box (as seen by the default build) but can be fine-tuned to perform at or above the quality range of all of the other printers (as seen by the second build). Again, however, you need to be willing to invest the time to tinker and will likely blow a few builds to waste, getting things setup just right with the Solidoodle 2.
|General Analysis and Conclusion|
|General Observations and Analysis -
The three machines we worked with in this round-up unintentionally offered a nice swath in representation of price points, features and performance in the field. All three machines are very capable of small to medium 3D print jobs and each offer its own set of performance characteristics and compromises. The Cube 3D clearly was the easiest machine to work with of the bunch, though it was also the least configurable in general. The Cube does have the added connectivity feature of WiFi, however, which is a nice plus. Prints from the Cube were clean and solid but in the middle of the pack in terms of quality. The Up! Mini ended up impressing us the most in terms of overall precision, though we wish its build platform was a little bit bigger. Finally, the Solidoodle 2, frankly, gave us some indigestion trying to get it to perform to its fullest potential. We knew the capabilities were in there, however, so with perseverance and education, we prevailed with very respectable prints. The SD2 is also dirt-cheap by comparison; so if you want to dip your toe in the field and learn about it in the process, this machine has the lowest cost of entry by far.
Print Speed and Noise -
Measuring print speed with each of these machines isn't as straight-forward as it may seem. Each printer, with the exception of the Cube, needs to be calibrated somewhat to get a desired print quality. As such, though the Solidoodle 2, for example, wanted to fly through prints, we had to slow it down to get the desired quality we were looking for. In addition, when you consider the Up! Mini also prints raft bases and support structures for its models, it's easy to see that you can't really get a clean apples to apples comparison when it comes to speed. However, in general, we'd offer that all three machines were reasonably close in terms of print speed, with the Cube taking the least amount of time in general to build, seconded by the Up! Mini and then the Solidoodle 2. We had to slow down the SD2 more often than not, just to get the precision we wanted but in reality, all three printers completed models within several minutes of each other.
In terms of noise, the Cube was easily the loudest of the trio, with an audible whine emanating from its cooling fan. The Up! Mini and Solidoodle 2 were noticeably quieter, save for the Mini's random loud beeps at warm-up.
Left to Right - Up! Mini, Cube 3D, Solidoodle 2
Our efforts in this 3D printer round-up were an education to say the least. What initially started as a fun father-son project, to be candid, turned out to be a really nice view of the world of 3D printing and a great learning experience in this burgeoning high tech field. As the saying goes, this market is "just getting warmed up." We expect big, amazing things in the area of 3D printing technology and are very excited at its prospects moving forward. A day where many households have 3D printers, as ubiquitous as inkjet printers, at the ready for quick creations, part fixes and the like, doesn't seem too far-fetched at all.
For the budding 3D creationist, any one of these machines will do the job nicely, it just depends on your requirements and budget. If you've got a bit more dinero and want to get up and printing quickly and reliably, the Cube is probably for you. It's the most fool-proof of our round-up. If you're willing to gets your hands dirty a bit more and learn a few things along the way, the Up! Mini can offer impressive, precise creations, so long as you don't need them to be too large. To be fair, the Up! Plus, for $1299, will get you the same precision and a 5.5-inch build area.
Then there are our friends at Solidoodle. For the lowest cost of entry, a Solidoodle 2 will give you a spacious 6-inch print bed and the ability to create some impressive builds, but you have to be willing to learn the ropes and tweak things along the way. That said, we'll give an honorable mention to the Solidoodle Support staff. We peppered them with questions during testing and they were more than accessible and helpful. Not to mention they have a published Skype user account that you can ping on a moment's notice during business hours.
For all of these products, we have no problem fully recommending any of them, if you're a 3D printing veteran or new to the technology. As greenhorns, we had a blast working with these machines and the companies behind them. They're easily all worthy of Hot Hardware's recommendation and we look forward to future products and technologies from 3D Systems, Solidoodle and PP3dp.
Up! Mini 3D Printer
Cube 3D Printer
Solidoodle 2 3D Printer