Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review: 3D System's Cube 3D Printer

For a little over 7 months now I have had access to and been using a Cube 3D printer from 3D Systems, a South Carolina based company. This machine does not belong to me personally; it belongs to a colleague of mine who has more or less given me free reign over using it. In the time that I've worked with the machine I've found a lot of things I do and do not like about it.

3D printed pieces for Ultron 5, still on the print bed

For the uninitiated, the Cube 3D printer is a ready-to-use PLA and ABS printer that retails for around $1300 USD. What you get for this is the complete machine, a cartridge of material (more or this later), and all of the doodads and whatsits you need to get the thing up and running. It's marketed as a 3D printer for people who just want to press print and not worry about settings, calibrations, or building the actual machine.

On that front, it absolutely delivers. In my experience, leveling the build platform every few prints will produce the best results, but that is the most sort of upkeep I've had to perform on the machine. The menu on the front of the machine also makes leveling the platform and setting the Z height of the extruder very simple.

My biggest problem, however, is that everything about the machine and it's software is closed source and locked down. In order to generate the equivalent of G-code, you have to use their proprietary program, inside of which you have very minimal access to settings.

Worse, though, is that they require you to use their proprietary filament cartridges. A filament cartridge contains 0.7lbs of material at $50USD - approximately a 300% markup of generic spooled ABS. The printer requires that you have one of their cartridges installed otherwise it will not allow you to print at all. This is the #1 complaint of Cube owners and you can read all about it when doing your research on the printer. A few ingenious hackers have found a way of tricking the printer's firmware in to printing even with an empty printer and using a custom spool stand to print from. Myself and the owner of the machine have done this and it turned a fairly poor printer in to something that is at least worth the money.

3D printed master and resin cast copy of Gravity Gun parts

But, frankly, if I were to spend $1300 on a tool, I feel like I shouldn't have to trick or hack it to do something that literally every other 3D printer available can do on it's own. I understand the desire for a cartridge based system for the people who, again, just want to press "go". But the fact that 3D Systems have locked out using other methods - and by all accounts, updated their firmware to "fix" the exploit that was being used - is just another big red flag against these systems.

(By the way, you can still use the same hack, but there are a couple other hoops to jump through to do it. But in fear of 3D Systems reading this and patching yet another "exploit", I don't want to post it online. Sorry.)

For anyone who plans to print in ABS on this machine: I strongly recommend you buy a heated platform, which does not come included with the printer. ABS has a much higher tendency to lift than PLA does, and is much more fickle about ambient temperatures. 3D Systems' solution is a (you guessed it) proprietary glue that you put down to bond the bottom layers to the build surface. It works like a dream, if only it weren't so expensive.

On the subject of ABS being prone to temperature differences, you may want to consider building an enclosure for the printer. This is something we are planning on doing but have not yet had the chance to get done.

At this point nothing has gone wrong with the printer itself - yet. I fear the day that something catastrophic does happen, since I've heard less than pleasant things about 3D Systems' customer support. That is to say, they are fast to respond, but the responses they give you aren't satisfactory. Their platform is closed and locked down and proprietary, and that's just the way they like it.

Parts from a 15 piece Pip-Boy 3000 print in various stages of cleanup and finishing

In short, I'm not entirely sure to who this printer is marked towards. Hobbyists who want to build and tweak won't get much out of it aside from a relatively easy to use, if extremely limited printer. I don't know how many Average Joe's out there who are kinda-sorta interested in 3D printing and also have $1300 to throw away on something they may not use a lot.

I have to applaud 3D Systems for trying to get in to the home 3D printing market and making it user friendly. But they take just as many steps backwards by only allowing their proprietary software and requiring the use of over priced filament cartridges.

If you're a hobbyist and happen to own one of these, my best suggestion is to use it to print out the parts for your choice of RepRap printers and start building one of those. That's what I'm doing.
About Michelle Sleeper

I am an Atlanta based artist making props, weapons, and armor from my favorite video games and comic books. I am interested in 3D printing, laser cutting, CNC, and all manner of digital fabrication. I am involved in the Atlanta hacker / maker community, doing everything from Arduino art installations to maker education.

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