by Brad Moon | December 23, 2013 8:53 am
We’ve discussed 3D printing in considerable detail in recent months. This high-tech industry seems on the cusp of a breakthrough and 3D printing stocks like Stratasys (SYSS), 3D Systems (DDD) and Voxeljet (VJET) have frequently been in headlines. Ever since CES, 3D printer reviews have been increasing too, as companies push to get their products into consumer hands.
One of the first 3D printers to go mainstream — landing a distribution deal that saw it on shelves in Staples (SPLS) stores for $1,299 — was the Cube 3D Printer from 3D Systems.
I had the opportunity to spend nearly a month playing with the Cube 3D Printer, one that 3D printer reviews describe as being among the first wave of consumer-focused models trying to make the leap from hobbyist workbench to home use. Does it succeed?
Read our 3D printer review of the Cube 3D Printer from DDD to find out.
One of the first things early 3D printer reviews complained about was the intimidating appearance. MakerBot (recently acquired by SYSS) had one of the most popular early 3D printers in the Thing-O-Matic. But it had to be assembled by the user, had a wooden case and featured exposed wires and electronic components.
3D Systems went to great lengths to make the Cube 3D Printer look as polished and unthreatening as possible. It’s designed to look like an appliance (they even released a variety of fashionable colors) and you can see from the photo of the review unit on my kitchen counter that DDD really did a great job here.
Everything about this 3D printer is as convenient as possible, including self-contained plastic cartridges (instead of spools), Wi-Fi connectivity, a USB port and a touchscreen display. A USB thumb drive is included with the plans to print a variety of sample objects, so you don’t even need to hook the Cube 3D Printer up to a computer and run software to start printing.
Once you’ve gone beyond the included plans, you can hit the web and find thousands of instructables (plans for 3D objects), import them into the included Cube software on your PC, and export them for printing on the Cube 3D Printer.
There’s no denying the fact that being able to print a 3D object has a tremendous ‘cool’ factor. The first time I fired up the Cube 3D Printer and it started laying down the filaments of hot plastic to create a rook from a chess set — complete with a winding staircase within — there was a crowd to watch the print head zip back and forth and up and down.
That’s one of the rubs, though. It’s slow. Imagine printing an e-mail and having your laser printer start spitting the paper out so slowly that it took two or three hours for the full page to appear. And nothing else could be printed in the meantime. Some of the 3D models took eight hours to print. At this rate, 3D printer reviews require having access to the test unit for weeks in order to have sufficient time to assess their capabilities.
Despite DDD’s efforts to make the Cube 3D Printer as user friendly as possible, there is still some user intervention required in the form of threading the plastic into the print head, aligning the printing platform before every job and applying glue to the platform (otherwise the model moves around and is ruined).
Finally, manufacturers and even 3D printer reviews don’t always mention this (it’s assumed that you know the basics of the technology), but those cool 3D printed models you see don’t actually come off the machine looking so polished. The printer has to add support structures, there are stray filaments of plastic and sometimes some minor flaws (see the photo at right of a 3D printed ‘Minion’ from the “Despicable Me” movie).
To get the polished results you see on promotional material, you need a knife and some sandpaper after the 3D printer is finished.
3D Systems has done a really good job of making a 3D printer that has the looks and relative ease of use to appeal to consumers. If you read 3D printer reviews of this model, like the detailed piece PC Mag put together, you see a common theme: looks good, relatively easy to set up, decent output.
But there are still a number of factors keeping 3D printing from taking off at the consumer level … and the Cube 3D Printer doesn’t address these.
The cost remains prohibitive. At $1,299, DDD has a printer that well-heeled consumers can afford, but certainly not the masses. And if you thought inkjet cartridges were expensive, you’re going to think they’re a bargain compared to plastic for 3D printers. Being able to print off your own stuff is cool, but I could buy a much higher quality ‘Minion’ figure at Toys R Us (TOYS) for less than it cost me to 3D print it.
And then there’s the time factor. Consumers hate to wait, now more than ever. Amazon (AMZN) is having to move to same-day delivery because customers hate having to wait one day for their purchase. Cool as the technology is, having to wait hours for a 3D printer to finish gets old fast.
That being said, if you’re looking to jump in to 3D printing and you’re looking for a reasonably priced, attractive and decent quality 3D printer — with wide availability of print materials and replacement parts — DDD’s Cube 3D printer is tough to beat. And most 3D printer reviews will agree.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.
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