3D printing is so zeitgeisty right now that we wouldn’t be surprised if David Cameron gave it a knighthood as a quick vote-grabber.
A short browse around Kickstarter or Indiegogo reveals swarms of 3D printer projects looking for (and mostly receiving) funding, and with good reason; although the first industrial 3D printers were developed in the early ’80s, it’s only now that we’re seeing models that we might be able to afford and use at home.
Couple that to the rise of a new breed of we’ll-do-it-all-for-you 3D printing companies – the likes of Sculpteo and Shapeways – and you have a bona fide sensation. We’ve tried out three of the best printers so start adding a “z” axis to your doodles, sharpen up your .stl files and let’s begin…
3D Systems CubeX Duo
What’s the story?
With a large 275x265x240mm build platform, the CubeX is big enough to print a plastic basketball. It’s also the only one of our crew that has dual extruders, allowing for multicolour prints or ABS/PLA combinations to create easily removable supports.
A touchscreen makes it quick and easy to set up, especially as it has the ability to print from a USB key.
The supplied software, however, lacks control over essential settings such as the number of shells (how thick outer layers are), which meant many of our ABS prints came out with splits in them. 3D Systems has promised an update, and users have had more success with third-party software, but for this money, we’d like everything ready to run.
Time is your enemy with 3D printers, but particularly the CubeX. Yes, it’s got space for big models, but the print head trundles around for ages before doing any printing and if you’re taking advantage of its two-colour print skills, it independently heats the relevant extruder before each sweep. Couldn’t it keep both up to temperature? Robbie (pictured) is just one colour, yet took eight hours.
Add into the mix the aforementioned software issues leading to splitting models, the platform that needs a pre-print layer of glue, plus the proprietary cartridge approach to plastic supply and we felt that the CubeX experience just didn’t match its entry price.
[Model pictured: Robot Schmobot by cerberus333]
Makerbot Replicator 2
What’s the story?
The Replicator 2 cuts a finer, more businesslike figure than its woody predecessor. You can even change the platform illumination hue – how very Alienware. Onboard controls are provided via a simple four-line alphanumeric LCD screen with straightforward menus and a conversational tone.
The included Makerware software is easy to use with plenty of options, and prints can be sent directly to Makerbot via USB or by slotting in an SD card – one of which comes with your printer, preloaded with some simple models to try. Here’s a company trying hard to bring 3D printing to the masses.
Bonus points for producing a successful and detailed print on the first attempt… albeit one of the supplied examples. While we complained about having to use glue on the CubeX’s platform, we had trouble getting models off the Makerbot’s thick, clear acrylic build platform, even in the face of a stern jabbing from our trusty spatula.
Adding a sheet of blue masking tape rectified the problem for further prints, meaning we got brilliantly detailed results – until we ran into trouble with a blocked extruder. It kept failing halfway through a print so had to be dismantled and cleaned out. Despite the hiccups, its focus on making 3D printing more accessible means it’s the one that we can most easily imagine sitting on our desk at home.
What’s the story?
The diminutive UP! Plus might not look like a slice of the future, but don’t let that fool you. Its homebrew feel includes most of its own plastic parts being 3D printed, which is a nice touch. The only controls are the power switch, the “initialise” button plus a red/green status LED – there’s no SD card slot, so you’ll have to physically connect via USB to upload the print, but once that’s done you can unplug your laptop and wander off with it.
A variety of tools come in the box, from tweezers to the world’s sharpest spatula, to help you finish your models. The UP! software isn’t pretty but has all the options you need and is smart about the way it produces prints.
The results are clean and sharp, with support material particularly well realised – neatly propping up precipitous parts but peeling away again without bother. The perforated boards that clip on to the heated build platform look primitive, but when set up correctly provide a solid base for your builds.
Once we’d figured out our PLA from our ABS – a rookie mistake – the UP! produced the best results of the printers, quietly and consistently.
While all three have a maximum resolution of 0.1mm, the UP! made the cleanest prints, with the fewest wobbles and ridges. It might not go as big as the CubeX or Makerbot, but we’ll take reliability over size, and we didn’t find ourselves craving anything bigger.
[Model: Chessbot Hero by cymon]
3D printing: the terms to learn
.STL files A 3D model file, used by free apps such as Google Sketchup as well as pro-level ’ware such as AutoCAD.The printer’s own OS then slices up the STL model into layers for printing.
Build platform The moving surface on which your model is layered. Platform material varies, and some (the UP! being one) are heated to help prevent the ABS warping as it cools.
Extruder The business end of any 3D printer that uses plastic filament. It draws in and melts the plastic straw so it can be squeezed out of the tip like hot, poisonous toothpaste.
Levelling If the build platform is wonky, then so is your model. Our three printers require manual levelling to ensure the extruder is the same distance at all points. Sounds simple, right?
Support Molten plastic doesn’t hang, man, so models with overhangs need support structures printed with them that can be removed once the print is finished.
Plastic types ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) or PLA (Polylactic Acid) are the main 3D printer plastics. ABS is tough, but prone to shrinkage, while weedier PLA is the eco-friendly choice.