I try stuff so you don’t have to…The “Cube 3” from 3D Systems…
The “Cube 3”, from 3D Systems, aims to break the £1,000 barrier by offering a 3D printer that could sit alongside your super-juicer or document printer and not break the bank…but does it live up to the claims on its’ packaging ?
I have some experience of designing for 3D print, and up until buying the “Cube 3”, had used bureau services (e.g. Sculpteo) to print out proof of concept designs – all in high resolution “SLS” – a laser / powder based 3D rapid prototyping process.
To date I haven’t been impressed by commercially available “desktop” solutions, which now proliferate and can be picked up for anything from £ 200.00 upwards, and which use PLA or ABS (2 types of thermoplastic) filament extruded onto a printing plate – mainly because the print quality is inferior to SLS and artefacts are very obvious, as a result of which , they usually require a lot of post-finishing ( e.g. sanding etc) after printing.
Many of the “budget” 3D printers have to be assembled before use and seem to be geared towards hobbyists and hackers, which is where the Cube 3 differs – it claims to be an all-in-one, “Plug and Play” solution which could be used by anyone fairly quickly.
Overall, the design ethos of the Cube 3 seems very “Apple” inspired – it’s a very handsome piece of industrial design in comparison to many of the “consumer-level” 3D printers out there, i.e. stripped down and often just plain ugly – the Cube 3 on the other hand, would look great on a table top next to your Mac.
Before proceeding with opening the box and setting up the printer, I checked YouTube for any hints by users already using it – there are quite a few videos reviewing the Cube 3 out there and what was immediately worrying was the number of posts which were highlighting “issues”, though generally the tone was encouraging – it’s very useful checking beforehand because there are apparently some things which are not made explicitly clear in the manual, though I got the feeling that many users were so keen to get going with the printer that they may have overlooked key points – that’s the “hacker” for you 🙂
My only advice here is to take your time and follow the set-up procedure to the letter and not to skip any part. Set-up requires downloading a program which allows you to send prints to the printer via WiFi from your Mac / PC, and an included USB stick is used to update the printer firmware to the latest version, which can also be downloaded from the manufacturers’ – 3D Systems – website – this is a very important part of the process.
This being my very first 3D printer, I was struck by the calibration process – split into 3 passes, which have to be carried out before you can start printing – the Cube 3 has a tiny touch screen which offers a number of options for setting up & controlling the device – calibration is a little nerve-wracking and very noisy, as the stepper motors and servos grind away to move the print bed and print jets – I had set up the printer in a work room next to a bedroom and even with the door shut you could hear it – was this a portent of things to come…?
My main agenda was in seeing the output quality of the highest resolution the Cube 3 is capable of, which is 70 microns – what I was not prepared for was how difficult and hit and miss the process of printing anything is – print fails, for whatever reason, were very frequent – the removable print bed (the flat plate on which the filament extruders build up the print) has to be prepped using a supplied glue stick, which is allowed to dry (*crucial) e.g. with a hair dryer, or the initial print layers won’t adhere to the print bed and this introduces registration errors which accumulate as the print progresses.
Prints are removed from the print bed by soaking off the glue (it’s soluble PVA) and snapping off the print, which can be nerve wracking, especially with brittle ABS. After running successful test prints once the printer had been calibrated (which looked pretty good), I decided to try and print a model which I’d built myself in a 3D program.
The Cube 3 has some interesting features in this regard – WiFi connection means you can load your model using the CUBE 3 software interface and then “send” it to the printer via WiFi – the software manages setting up support structures, object scaling and the 3 output resolution options – your file needs to be output as an .STL, which is the standard file format for 3D printing.
The first attempt resulted in a 13 HOUR continuous run before I woke the next morning (whilst hearing the printer making very loud noises all night) to find a partially printed, incomplete object – not fun…
After some poking around on the internet I identified the problem – the Cube 3 has 2 print cartridges mounted either side of the print bed area – they can carry 2 different colour filaments (as per the photo above), or water soluble filament for support structures.
Apparently the fail rate for the cartridges is very high, and in fact this is the most serious design flaw of an otherwise excellent printer (aside from the noisy operation…) – 3D Systems advice (and to be fair their after-sales service is prompt and second to none) is to break open the faulty cartridge and pull out jammed filament, something which proves to be horribly complex and requires special tools – I tried this without any success, and 3D Systems sent me a new cartridge.
I tried printing one of the supplied sample models (over 100 are available for download once you have registered your printer with 3D Systems) and the result exceeded my expectations, though it still took all night to print – no issues with filament jams.
However, jamming was a constant issue and when it happened a second time, I realised that this is the main Achilles Heel of the Cube 3 – most 3D printers have a separate spool of filament – the Cube 3 has an enclosed cartridge, which is probably how 3D Systems anticipated making money from a budget printer – the cartridges retail at around £ 40.00 per cartridge – and repair of the cartridge after it fails is very difficult & you risk damaging the printer itself in the process.
3D Systems have since discontinued their foray into affordable printers, with good reason but continue to provide solid support for it – a pity since it is derailed by a design flaw, which if fixed, would have made it a leader in the marketplace, given the fact that it provided the highest output resolution of any low-cost 3D printer, though as of writing there are similarly priced printers which use filament which can output at 50 microns, against the 70 microns of the Cube 3.
I managed to get one decent print of my own designed object before giving up and returning the printer for a full refund.