3D Systems Cube 3D Printer review

The 3D Systems Cube 3D Printer is relatively easy to set up and use, and provides decent build quality.
Photo of 3D Systems Cube 3D Printer

Despite all the press that 3D printing has garnered in the past few years, this emerging technology has largely remained the domain of hobbyists, DIYers, and professionals such as architects, product designers, and artists. The Cube 3D Printer ($1,299) is a product that attempts to bring 3D printing to the consumer market by focusing on quick setup, a user-friendly experience, and appealing results. In this, it partly succeeds.

We did get the Cube up and printing out objects of decent quality in not much more than half an hour, but printing with the Cube still requires considerably more attention, care, and work (and, at times, troubleshooting) than typical consumer products. Still, it’s a laudable effort, though at its price, it’s not for the light of wallet.

Let’s start by being clear on what the Cube does, and doesn’t do. You’ve perhaps seen articles describing all sorts of exotic real and potential applications for 3D printing, everything from guns to houses to living cells to titanium implants to space bases to confections to dental crowns.

The Cube 3D Printer is limited to printing relatively small plastic objects, but within that domain it can print a huge variety of things. Some objects have interior detail that couldn’t be added using traditional injection molding; for example, our first test object, a chess rook, has within it a spiral staircase and a double strand representing DNA.

It’s fascinating to watch 3D objects being printed out layer by layer with the Cube. It is a head turner; in testing it, I’ve probably had more people drop by to watch it than all the hundreds of other products I’ve tested combined. While 3D printing is hot, in, and sexy, but it remains to be seen if it’s a fad largely confined to hobbyists, the revolutionary game-changer that some pundits claim it is, or a product destined to be a regular addition to average households (which is what products like the Cube are aiming for). But let’s set aside the hype and speculation and examine this product on its merits.

Anatomy of a Cube
First, the Cube isn’t really a cube—though the build area, the maximum size of your 3D-printed objects, is cubical, 140mm (~5.5 inches) on a side. This printer is rather an open frame, 10 by 10 b y 13 inches (HWD) and weighing 9.5 pounds, consisting of a base with a monochrome touch screen, an arch-like tower, and an arm. Our test unit is silver, though the Cube is also available in white, blue, magenta, or green.

Atop the tower is the extruder assembly, which holds the extruder and into which a plastic filament is fed. The extruder is essentially the print head; it lays down a strand of melted plastic to form the object you’re building). Further down on the tower is an arm that holds the build platform, a square piece of plastic on which the object is constructed, layer by layer. The extruder assembly moves side to side, while the arm moves vertically as well as in and out, comprising the 3-dimensional motion needed to render the object.

The Cube Family
The Cube we tested is the second generation of this particular model, introduced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. It is faster than the original Cube, it uses a glass printbed rather than the original heated printbed, and can print with either ABS or PLA plastic. Also in the Cube’s product line is the CubeX, with a larger (10- by 10- by 11-inch) build volume than the basic Cube. A single-extruder model sells for $2,499, a dual-extruder version goes for $2,999, and $3,999 will get you the triple-extruder version.

3D Systems is a pioneer in the 3D printing field. In the mid-1980s its founder, Charles W. Hull built what is widely considered the first 3D printer, which used a technique called stereolithography (from which the .stl 3D CAD file format gets its name). The company has traditionally made expensive commercial 3D printers for architects, engineers, and shop floors, but in recent years has ventured into the hobbyist and consumer arenas as well.

Continue Reading: Setup, Extruder, Connectivity

Setup
Setting the Cube up was a somewhat involved process, made easier thanks to a clear step-by-step explanation in the (2D-printed) user guide. You have to activate the Cube by setting up an account on the cubify.com site, entering your Cube’s serial number, and then entering an activation code after it’s emailed to you—ours came within a few minutes. Once your account is set up, you can download the Cube software, which lets you convert 3D files into the .cube print file format the Cube uses, as well rescale and otherwise tweak the files. You can also download 25 free Creations (files of various printable objects), six of which come pre-installed on the USB thumb drive that comes with the Cube. You can (and should, as you’re going to need it) also download a user guide, which goes into more detail than the printed guide.

Unlike MakerBot and other companies that use spools to hold the plastic filament that serves as raw material for creating the 3D-printed objects, 3D Systems supplies the filament in cartridges. When the cartridge is snapped into place, the software will detect it, identify if it’s ABS or PLA (and prevent you from printing from a file meant for the other type of plastic), and indicate how much of the material is left in the cartridge, as there’s no window in the cartridge to let you inspect the filament yourself. Although the cartridges are a lot easier to load into the printer and otherwise handle than spools of filament, using cartridges also means you can’t use filament from other sources.

Extruder Alert
Once the cartridge is in place, you pay out a foot of filament and put an included plastic tube around it. One end of the tube goes into the cartridge; the other—preceded by about an inch of filament—goes into a hole at the top of the extruder assembly. If it isn’t positioned correctly, the print run will be aborted due to “filament flow fail.” Although it sometimes took several attempts to get the filament feeding properly, once it was working, it fed without problem, at least until the next time I switched cartridges.

Once the tube and filament are in place, you need to set the gap between the extruder nozzle and the print bed—something that, for best print results, you actually should do before each print run. The print bed attaches to a trough in the bottom arm of the printer, where it’s stabilized by a magnet. With the touch screen on the Cube, you enter Setup and go to “set gap.” The arm will then rise until the print bed is just below the extruder. You need to slip a sheet of paper between print bed and extruder, and then move the print bed up (using arrows on the touch screen) until the sheet of paper can no longer move freely. Then you draw the print bed down until the paper can move again. You then save the setting and remove the paper.

A Balky Screen
One problem I encountered is that the touch screen wasn’t very responsive; I often had to press it multiple times before it would accept a command. In setting the gap, ideally pressing the arrow key would move the print bed the minimum distance (5 units), but in reality, because of the screen’s stubbornness the motion was more herky-jerky, with it jumping greater distances, and it was hard to nudge it the desired distance.

Once the gap is set, you’re almost ready to print. First you have to coat the print bed with glue using a glue stick (CubeStick) that comes with the printer. Additional sticks, which are good for about 30 print jobs, are available for $9 each. The glue stabilizes the object as it is being printed, and holds it in place. When the glue is applied, you place the print bed in its holder, send a file to print, either wirelessly from your computer or from the USB thumb drive, selected via the touch screen. The print bed will rise to just below the extruder, the plastic will heat up, and when it’s ready, printing will commence.

Connectivity
You can print either from files on a USB thumb drive or via Wi-Fi (either with WPS or an ad-hoc connection). I did most of the testing using files saved to the USB key, although I also printed directly from the Cubify software installed on my computer over a WPS connection. Transferring files over our Wi-Fi connection could take five minutes or more, long enough that I ended up eschewing Wi-Fi in favor of the USB key. There’s also a port for connecting a USB cable to your computer, but it’s strictly for firmware upgrades, not for printing.

With the Cubify software, you can import a 3D CAD file (STL or other format), give commands to “heal” it (optimize it for Cube printing), scale it, set for hollow, strong, or solid, set the plastic type (ABS or PLA), add a raft (basically a platform under the object you’re printing), and add supports (the latter in case there’s a substantial overhang, which without support during printing is prone to droop). You can see the object’s dimensions in a model info window. When you’re done, you can save it to an .stl file, or build it into a ready-to-print .cube file.

If you’re connected via Wi-Fi, you can then send your object’s file directly to the Cube to print. Otherwise, you can copy the file from your hard drive to the USB key and plug the key into the printer. Whichever method you use, you can’t make any changes to the files once they’ve been sent to the Cube.

Continue Reading: Printing

Printing
Once the file is loaded, the Cube will print it layer by layer, following the instructions from the 3D CAD file. The printing time varies depending on the object you’re printing, to what size you’ve scaled it, and which type of plastic you’re using to print it. (PLA tended to print faster than ABS.) At times during the printing process, the printer emits spacy, musical, almost warbling sounds that I found pleasing. Once the object is completed, the print bed will descend, the extruder will cool off, and after a few minutes you can remove the object from the print bed. The touch screen also displays an estimated time for the printing, but though it’s a good ballpark figure, it was sometimes off by 10 percent or more.

That can sometimes be tricky, as the object is glued down. As per the user guide, you should soak the print bed and object in warm water for about five minutes. After that time, you may still have to pull or pry the object off the print bed. I found that using a sharp knife blade to feel out a gap between object and print bed usually did the trick. Then you clean the remaining glue off the print bed with a sponge or other scouring item. Before you print again, you’ll have to apply fresh coating of glue to the print bed.

You also need to reset the gap between print bed and extruder, between each printing if possible. A couple of times I neglected to do so, and in one of these, the printer tried to fill in plastic outside the object’s dimensions, leaving a warped base and excess plastic grunge around the edges.

Our Creations
Between our official tests and additional work, we printed about 20 objects with the Cube 3D Printer, including an owl, a teacup, a Buddha head, a pyramid, a Dr. Who Tardis, and some miniature cityscapes. Most were printed using PLA plastic, a few with ABS. Some were from the files provided with the printer, and others were test objects available from other sources such as the Thingiverse. Our success varied considerably between the objects; about five were beautifully rendered, most of the rest were of decent quality though with some flaws, and about four were basically ruined. (That doesn’t count maybe a half dozen aborted starts.)

There are differences between the plastics, with PLA, a starch-based, biodegradable plastic, generally yielding better results in my testing. The bases of some of the objects printed with petroleum-based ABS curled upwards at a corner or along a side, and a couple of times the plastic pulled off the base altogether, forcing me to scuttle the job. Hot ABS plastic sometimes had a notable burning-plastic smell.

I’ve used the Cube for nearly two weeks and have generally been happy with the results, but there have been enough challenges that I couldn’t term the experience smooth. Sometimes after switching cartridges, filaments won’t feed, and I have to futz with them until they do. The gap needs to be frequently adjusted, and the balky touch screen can be frustrating. When reps from 3D System visited our labs, they noticed that a rubber ring that encircled the extruder head was missing. They gave me a replacement ring, saying that it might improve print quality. I didn’t notice any improvement, and found the ring tricky to fit correctly over the extruder nozzle and for it to stay in place—a couple of times the ring would fill with melted plastic, and the print run would have to be stopped.

Unlike some other printers like some of the MakerBot models, the Cube only has a single resolution (layer height), 200 microns (or 0.2 mm), which is relatively coarse compared with, for instance, the MakerBot Replicator 2′s best resolution, at 100 microns. In general, the objects I’ve seen at MakerBot’s showroom, 3D printing shows, and the few we have on hand here look slightly smoother than most of those from the Cube, though some of the Cube’s creations turned out great. Keep in mind, though, that the Replicator 2 base model ($2,199 direct) is nearly twice as expensive as the Cube; the dual-extruder Replicator 2X sells for $2,799.

The Cube 3D Printer is easy enough to set up that someone with patience and the ability to follow directions should be able to get it up and running without too much trouble. That wasn’t the case with the RepRap-based Buildatron 3D printer when we looked at it last year. But though the Cube is relatively easy to use for a 3D printer, the printing process—what with gluing the print bed, washing it off, setting and resetting the gap, and getting the filament to feed, not to mention troubleshooting bad prints—is still too involved and onerous to be a true consumer product at this point. That’s probably more a reflection of the state of the art of 3D printing than the Cube 3D Printer itself, with 3D printers closer in spirit to a table saw you keep in the wood-working corner in your garage than to the computer you keep in your family room. We are just starting to get 3D printers in for testing and the state of the art is changing fast. We will update this review as more competitors reach the market.

Though you may not see its likes in every household for a while (if ever), the Cube 3d Printer is easy enough to operate, and its results generally pleasing enough that it’s a good choice for hobbyists and artists alike—as well as some daring consumers who are willing to put up with some setup and operational hassles to get a taste of this exciting technology.

Specifications
Printer Category 3D Printer
Connection Type USB, Wireless

Verdict
Although the Cube 3D Printer doesn't provide the hassle-free experience we hope for in consumer-oriented products, it's relatively easy to set up and use, and provides decent build quality.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc