UP! mini review

The compact UP! mini 3D printer provides generally good print quality to tech-savvy consumers, hobbyists, and professionals.
Photo of UP! mini

The UP! mini ($1,099 through [x]object) is a study in contrasts. This compact 3D printer, geared to both consumer and professional use, requires a minimum of adjustment and maintenance—once it’s up and running. Setup is—at least in theory—reasonably simple and straightforward, but poor documentation makes it more onerous than it need be. At its best, it printed—even at normal resolution—smooth, detailed objects from ABS plastic, but some objects totally stumped it.

What’s UP!?
The UP! mini is built by a Chinese company, Delta Micro Factory Corporation, aka PP3DP (for Personal Portable 3D Printer). We got our test unit via [x]object Inc., one of the 3 United States UP! distributors listed on the PP3DP Web site. PP3DP sells the UP! mini direct on its site for $899, but adds $165 for shipping to North America (and you’ll need to factor in the shipping time from China). Buying through [x]object also gains you phone and email support. I can’t speak to the quality of the support; the only time I called the support line (trying to locate a person rather than with a technical question), I got a recorded message.

The printer, housed in a black case, measures 13.9 by 9.4 by 13.4 inches (HWD), and weighs 7 pounds. The UP! mini’s build area is a cube, 120mm (~4.7 inches) on a side, smaller than the 5.5-inch (cubed) build area of the 3D Systems Cube 3D Printer and the 6-inch (cubed) build area of the Solidoodle 2 Pro. Its highest resolution is 200 microns (0.2mm).

In addition to the UP! mini, there are two other models in the line. The UP! Plus ($1,499 through [x]object) has a slightly larger (140 by 140 by 135mm) build platform, and a slightly finer minimum layer thickness (0.15mm). The soon to be released UP! Plus2 is essentially the UP! Plus, with the addition of automatic height and level calibration.

With its sleek black case with hinged front door and liftable hood, the UP! mini has a more consumer-like feel than the utilitarian-looking, open steel-framed Solidoodle 2 Pro. According to PP3DP, the printer is for either personal or professional use, and should be ready to print nearly out of the box, a similar claim to what Solidoodle had made for the Pro 2. As with the Solidoodle, the claim of rapid setup proved wildly optimistic. The Cube 3D Printer is the only 3D printer I’ve tested so far with truly rapid setup; it was printing its first successful object barely half an hour after we unboxed it.

Prepping the UP! mini
Physical assembly of the printer, at least, is minimal, consisting of attaching a spool holder to the back and setting a spool of plastic filament into place; snapping the extruder assembly into place (it’s held by 3 magnets); and threading the filament from the spool through a guide at the top of the printer and into the extruder assembly. Also, before printing, the cellboard—a removable, square sheet of perforated polycarbonate—has to be added to the build platform. It slides in above the “hotboard” (the heatable build platform), and can be held in place with clips if need be, although in my experience it fit securely.

The cellboard’s network of tiny holes serves an important role: to hold the molten (and quickly solidifying) plastic that’s squeezed into them as the first layers of a print job are extruded, and prevent the corners of the object from peeling up, likely pulling the rest of the job off the platform eventually and ruining it.

Software Installation Blues
Much of the setup trouble I ran into was software related, compounded by an outdated manual written in sometimes broken English, which led at times to confusing instructions, and with some omissions that made it hard to follow systematically. For example, section 3.1.2, Installing the Software (under the misspelled section heading, “Opeations”), begins “Start the UPX.xx setup.exe file and install it to the specified directory….” The fact that you first need to go to PP3DP.com website and download a software package isn’t mentioned. (I’d wondered if I was missing a disk.) One the site, there’s one software package, which works with either the UP! mini or the UP! plus. There are both Windows and Mac versions; I downloaded the latest Windows version, V.1.18, to a laptop running Windows 7.

Installing the software was not smooth. The download was in RAR archive format, which Windows doesn’t natively open. I had to install a free RAR opener program that I found in a search, while avoiding installing all the other free bloatware the download site tried to foist upon me in the process. And the problems didn’t end with downloading, opening, and installing the package. I plugged in the USB cable, which should have launched the Found New Hardware Wizard, but didn’t. Instead, I had to install the driver using Devices and Printers and the Device Manager from the Control Panel. I was also able to install the driver on a Windows 8 machine, but the process was even more onerous, as I ran into the same obstacles but also had to change the settings so it would accept unsigned drivers.

Once the software is installed, and the printer is connected to the computer via the USB cable, you still need to do a couple of steps to get it ready for printing. For the first use only, you need to initialize the printer. From the UP! software, in the 3D Print menu, select Initialize. When the printer is ready, it will announce this with several obnoxiously loud beeps. You hear the same beeping at several other points: when you turn the printer on and when it’s ready to print, for example. Although the UP! mini is quieter when actually printing than the other two 3D printers I’ve tested, the beeping is intrusive, especially if you have colleagues sitting nearby. From 3D Print | Maintenance, you need to draw filament into the extruder assembly, by pressing Extrude. That process went smoothly; the UP! had fewer problems with filament feeding than either the Cube 3D Printer or the Solidoodle 2 Pro.

You can heat the build platform before printing, which is recommended. (Particularly with ABS plastic, heating the platform reduces any curling to the base.) You import an STL file of a 3D object into the UP! software, where it converts it into a printable format (UP!’s proprietary UP3 format), and shows the object at its size relative to the build platform. You can rescale the object if you want. When you’re ready to print, you press the print command, which opens a window from which you can launch the print job. Once you do, it will load the file and heat the extruder; when it’s ready, it will beep and then begin printing. As the file is saved on an SD card that’s built into the printer itself, you can disconnect your computer and the printing will continue.

Continue Reading: Extruder Gap, Primo Toolkit

Setting the Extruder Gap
As has been true with other 3D printers we’ve tested, it’s important to correctly set the initial gap between extruder nozzle and print bed. You can adjust it in increments of 0.1mm to narrow the gap until the extruder head is barely above the platform (the suggested gap is 0.2mm). Then you press Set Nozzle Height, and it will lock the setting. The manual, however, showed an additional step in which it prints a test line to see if it’s the right thickness. This did not occur, and the first times I set the height, I wasn’t sure that it was successfully set.

In my first test prints, after a few layers had been applied, one corner of the object would begin to peel up, and invariably the whole job would be pulled off the platform, ruining it. Our contact at [x]object told me that the gap between nozzle and print bed should be very tight, and also that the passage in the manual about printing the test strip was no longer applicable, as the software had been updated. I tightened the gap so that the distance between extruder and print bed was only a paper sheet’s width; and after that, none of the objects I was printing pulled up from the base.

In general, the quality of the printed objects was very good, with smooth application of plastic

and good retention of detail. A few objects stumped the printer, most notably one with two boys standing next to each other. It did fine with the base, but mangled the legs, quickly scuttling the job. I tried switching from normal to highest resolution, but experienced the same problem.

Primo Toolkit
Once the object is printed and removed from the print bed, you still have to remove the plastic “raft” on which the object is built, by prying it up from the base, pulling it out from all the tiny holes in the cellboard. Fortunately, the printer comes with a good toolkit, including gloves, a spatula-like “shovel”, an XActo knife, pliers, and wrenches. The spatula was helpful in clearing the board of residual plastic.

The UP! mini can print with either ABS or PLA plastic. The UP! mini comes with a 1.75kg spool of ABS plastic; PP3DP recommends ABS, as PLA has sharper edges and can degrade over time. The downside of ABS is that it can emit a sometimes strong odor, and that it’s mildly toxic as some people have reported headaches after being exposed to its fumes, and its particles can build up in the lungs. Keeping the hood and the door closed minimizes the fumes. Once it’s cooled, though, ABS is safe enough; it’s the plastic that LEGO pieces are made from.

The UP! mini is a compact 3D printer with a relatively small print area, capable of printing objects of good quality for a machine at its price but proving somewhat inconsistent in its performance, as some objects baffled it. The manual that comes with it is outdated and at times confusing, and setup, from software installation to getting it printing properly, was much trickier than it should be. Once the UP! was up and running, although I had occasional misprints, I experienced no mechanical problems. It had better overall print quality than the Solidoodle 2 Pro—which also suffered from significant setup problems—but sells for nearly twice its price. The UP! mini sells for about $200 less than the Cube 3D Printer, which was a lot easier to set up if not to operate.

This compact printer did not provide the easy setup we expect from a consumer product—the company indicates it’s good for either consumer or professional use—but once it was up and running, it required a minimum of upkeep; the worst of it was trying to pry the plastic “raft” that holds print jobs in place out of the tiny holes in the cellboard. Though I can’t recommend it for typical consumers, a tech-savvy consumer with a bit of patience could get it working, as could a hobbyist or a professional. It couldn’t print out a few things we threw at it, but most of our test objects showed good detail and smoothness. The UP! mini should be a welcome addition to many studios, schools, and homes.

Specifications
Printer Category 3D Printer
Connection Type USB

Verdict
The compact UP! mini 3D printer provides generally good print quality, though setup is more onerous than it need be, and its documentation could use an update.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc