The Solidoodle 2 Pro 3D printer has a consumer-friendly price and does well in consistently printing out plastic objects from CAD files. Solidoodle targets this product toward an eclectic mix of users, from tech-savvy consumers all the way to professionals. Based on the amount of troubleshooting I had to do in getting it up and running, it’s suitable for experienced users rather than typical consumers. Anyone setting the Solidoodle 2 Pro, if their experience is at all similar to mine, would need to be very patient and liberally avail themselves of Solidoodle’s extensive help resources before being able to print with it. But once my test unit was up and running, the Solidoodle 2 Pro performed like a pro, consistently printing out objects of decent quality with few misprints.
There are several models in the Solidoodle stable. The Solidoodle 2 Pro has a few advantages over the base model in its line (Solidoodle 2, $499 direct): Its build platform is heated, and it has an upgraded spool holder and power supply, plus interior lighting. The Solidoodle 2 Expert ($699) adds a cover and a front door. A third-generation model, the Solidoodle 3 ($799), has a larger (8-by-8-by-8-inch) build platform.
The Solidoodle 2 Pro is nothing if not sturdy. Its open, nearly cubical steel frame, 11.5 by 11.75 by 11.75 inches (HWD), is built to last. The company says the frame can support the weight of a 200-pound man even while printing (no, we did not test this). Its build area is up to 6 by 6 by 6 inches, slightly larger than the 3D Systems Cube 3D Printer, with a build area of 5.5 inches in each dimension.
Continue Reading: Basics and Setup
Basics and Setup
The one physical component that requires assembly is a curved plastic rod to hold the spool of plastic filament that you’ll print from. The Solidoodle 2 Pro only comes with a small “starter” supply of filament, but spools of it can be ordered from the Solidoodle site ($43 for a 2-pound spool of ABS plastic). A diagram for assembling the spool holder from its four plastic parts is included—it should take no more than a few minutes to complete. The rod both holds the spool and allows it to turn freely when feeding filament into the Solidoodle 2 Pro.
As is typical of 3D printers, filament is fed (from the spool, if you have one) through the back of the printer and down through a hole in the top of the extruder assembly. The extruder—the 3D printing analogue to a conventional printer’s print head—consists of a heated chamber and a nozzle that squirts the filament onto the print bed. Once the software is installed and you heat the extruder, you can then push the filament down through the top of the extruder and tap the program’s Extrude button, which should grab the filament between a motor and gears and pull it into the extruder, where it will heat up, and a string of molten filament will curl out of the bottom.
The 2 Pro can print using either with petroleum-based ABS plastic, or PLA, a starch-based, biodegradable plastic. In its store, Solidoodle sells 2-pound spools of ABS plastic at the standard 1.75mm thickness, in each of 5 colors (natural, red, green, black, and blue) for $43 per spool. Solidoodle doesn’t currently have a PLA supplier, but you can use spools sold by other 3D printer manufacturers, with the exception of the proprietary cartridges sold by 3D Systems for its Cube 3D Printer, as long as they use the same 1.75mm thickness, which is a widespread standard.
I did all my testing using the ABS plastic that Solidoodle supplied. The company says that the results should be similar using PLA. For ABS plastic, it helps that the 2 Pro uses a heated build platform, as the bottom corners or edges of an ABS plastic job tend to pull up if the room is cool. Such curling was a serious issue with the Cube 3D printer, while with the 2 Pro such curling was absent from most jobs and barely perceptible in those that showed it at all.
Hot ABS plastic sometimes has a burning-plastic smell, particularly at higher temperatures, but with the 2 Pro, with the extruder temperature below 200C it was seldom noticeable and never a problem. ABS plastic fumes are mildly toxic in that particles in the fumes have the potential to irritate one’s respiratory tract and can collect in the lungs, and people have reported getting headaches from breathing ABS fumes, so it’s best to print in a well-ventilated area, and to print at lower temperatures if the smell is obvious. PLA plastic fumes are non-toxic.
I ran into three significant issues in setting up the 2 Pro. The first was that the filament would not into the extruder. In the second, the extruder nozzle was too close to the print bed and dug into the tape when a print was initiated. In the third, instead of printing a succession of layers vertically, each new layer was offset by a millimeter or so from the previous one, causing the printing to “travel” towards the edge of the build platform.
In each case I called Solidoodle and was directed to an appropriate Help page, with resources that included video where necessary, to solve the problem. In the case of the third problem, for instance, it turned out that the carriage that moved the extruder along the Y axis—a 3D printer’s motion is along 2 horizontal axes (X and Y), as well as vertically (Z axis)—was not moving freely when pressed by hand. The fix involved unseating a motor, loosening several belts, making sure that several rods were properly greased, and then reseating the motor. When I tried printing, the print layers still traveled, so I repeated the fix process, and after that the Solidoodle printed vertically as it should.
Working through all these issues took a lot of time (the better part of 2 workdays) and tinkering. Nothing was fundamentally wrong with our test unit, but it needed a lot of tweaking and calibrating to get it running right. According to Solidoodle, their printers should be ready to go out of the box; the company does a test print before shipping. I don’t know how typical the issues I encountered are, but based on my experience, I’d have to say that the Solidoodle 2 Pro is fitting for hobbyists and others prepared to do a bit of tinkering and to get their hands dirty, rather than consumers looking for a product they can have up and running with minimal setup.
Continue Reading: Software and Printing
Software and Printing
The printer ships without software, but the instruction sheet points you to the Solidoodle site’s How To section for software and setup instructions. Solidoodle uses open source 3D printing programs. With the Solidoodle 2 Pro, you have two choices: Repetier Host or Pronterface, both of which come in versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux systems. On my Windows 7 test system, I installed Repetier Host, an all-in-one bundle designed especially for Solidoodle use.
To print from the Solidoodle 2 Pro using buttons from Repetier Host’s top bar, you connect to the printer, then select and load a 3D printable STL file. A window on the left side of the screen shows a 3D representation of the printer’s build area and whatever object is loaded. At right, an Object Placement tab is open, letting you scale, remove, rotate, or translate the object. The second tab, Slicer, lets you access either the Slic3r or Skeinforge slicing programs. According to Solidoodle, Skeinforge is more versatile, but Slic3r is more user-friendly, so I stuck to Slic3r. Slicing the file, which may take a few minutes to complete, is done by pressing a single button. Some STL files don’t slice cleanly, which will show in the 3D visualization under the G-Code tab; Repetier recommends that such files be processed by the netfabb Cloud Service.
The third tab, G-Code Editor, lets you see and edit the object’s G-Code, the file’s instructions for printing the object. Beginners needn’t worry about G-Code; more knowledgeable users can make improvements by tweaking the code. The fourth tab, Manual Control, lets you heat the extruder and print bed, as well as control the extruder and motors. When slicing is done and the extruder and print bed have reached the proper temperature, you press a button on the top bar to start the job, and you’re off.
The printing process is fairly typical for a RepRap-inspired 3D printer, and notably different than with the Cube 3D Printer. Among other differences, with the Cube you have to apply glue to the removable build platform before each printing, and then soak the build platform in water after printing to remove the printed object and glue. In contrast, the 2 Pro uses a heated build platform and Kapton tape, which you can reuse indefinitely unless the tape gets damaged. Solidoodle sells a sheet of replacement tape for about $10. After printing, the extruder will automatically cool down, but you’ll have to turn the print bed’s heater off using Repetier.
I printed more than half a dozen test objects using the Solidoodle 2 Pro, some of them at both the fine (.1 mm) and coarser (.3 mm) resolution. Comparing the output of one of these (an owl) with a print I did of the same object using the 3D Systems Cube, the Solidoodle’s layers were smoother, with fewer extra loops or globs of plastic, even in the lower-res version. The Cube, though, did somewhat better in retaining finer detail than either of the Solidoodle prints. However, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, as we put the Cube file through the extra “healing” step that its software provides.
The higher-res Solidoodle output was a bit smoother and better overall than the lower-res version, but as it takes some 3 times as long to print the higher-res version (for example, it took about an hour and a half to print one test object at lower res, and nearly 5 hours at high res), the improvement may not be worth the wait, especially if you’re printing from a laptop that you’d otherwise move around. Once you initiate a print job, you can see the estimated time remaining to print in Repetier’s Manual Control window; the real print times tended to be slightly longer than the first estimates would indicate, but not longer than 10%.
Continue Reading: A 3D Printer for the Hobbyist
A 3D Printer for the Hobbyist
As a reviewer, I occasionally come up against the question of whether my experience with a product is typical, or if there’s something unusual about my test unit. If there’s an obvious defect, the answer is clear, but there’s a large gray area. Solidoodle states on its site that its 3D printers should be ready to go out of the box once you install the software and insert the filament. In my experience, it took a lot longer, and required considerable troubleshooting. To its credit, Solidoodle offers the online resources to deal with all the issues I encountered, and once it was set up, the printer has operated relatively trouble-free. I can’t say how commonplace the issues I faced are, but only that I had to resolve them, and that at least some users are likely to face them.
To hobbyists and tinkerers, working through setup issues is all part of the process. I did feel a sense of accomplishment as I resolved each one with the help of Solidoodle’s resources, and even more so now that the Solidoodle 2 Pro has performed well, with reasonably good output and few misprints, since I got it up and running.
A typical consumer, used to products with reasonably simple and straightforward setups, would likely soon be tearing their hair out if their setup process resembled mine. At least I’d already had the experience of reviewing one 3D printer and assembling a second one from a kit. Though I can’t recommend the Solidoodle 2 Pro for average consumers, it’s a great low-priced choice for someone who doesn’t mind doing a good deal of troubleshooting (and getting their hands dirty) if need be. The end result should be a very sturdy and smoothly running 3D printer.
The 3D Systems Cube 3D Printer was much easier to set up—we ran our first successful test print with it barely half an hour after unboxing the Cube—and its software made quick work of preparing files to print. Unlike with the Solidoodle, a lot of the printer’s functions, such as heating the extruder, are performed automatically when you launch a print job. But you have to apply glue to the print bed, and wash the glue off to remove the finished object from the print bed, while the Solidoodle’s heated print bed eliminates the need for that. The Cube also costs more than twice as much as the Solidoodle 2 Pro.
Which is the better product? That really depends on your experience, skill level, and patience. Solidoodle was a bit vague about the intended audience for this product, noting that it is priced for consumers but citing, as examples of users, tech-savvy parents introducing their kids to this new technology, high-school science programs, and professionals such as designers and engineers. Based on my own experience, it’s not for average consumers looking for a product with quick setup and results. The Cube 3D Printer, despite its operational glitches and higher price tag, is much better suited to that role.
For hobbyists, and indeed anyone willing to endure a potentially arduous setup process, the Solidoodle 2 Pro has much to recommend it. It is a good-quality, sturdy 3D printer at a modest price. Should one encounter setup or operational problems, the company’s solid support resources will help work through them. This makes it a very appealing choice for the tinkerers of the world, and is better at that role than the Cube, whose self-contained ecosystem doesn’t even allow you to use filament from competing brands.
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