Printing goes next gen: Cube 3D printer reviewed

When I was first shown a printer, it was like watching magic happen. From nothing to text, and from text to image, the information appeared. It was like watching the most complicated technological magic trick, and it’s still one of those things that amazes me today.

We’ve gone through several rounds improving the technology, with dot matrix leading the way to inkjet, while laser used a completely different concept to heat the information to the page, and paper print technology is still improving, as companies around the world work to make ink more affordable, ecologically better, and more resistant to time and photo sensitivity.

But paper printing is just the beginning, and 3D printing is the next stage in printing technology, starting with physical objects.

Imagine being able to print a toy for your children, a piece of jewellery for your significant other, or your own smartphone case with your own design and look.

That is now possible, and Officeworks has the first consumer-ready 3D printer in its stores with the Cube, a 3D printer built by a company with a name suggesting it’s passionate about 3D printing, namely 3D Systems.

You can print all manner of things with it — from cubes to spheres to complicated shapes — but is the first consumer-ready 3D printer ready for consumers, or is it just a glimpse on the future with more time needed?

What is it?

The Cube 3D printer is more or less what the name says: a printer that creates physical objects using a printing process.

Taking cartridges of rolled plastic wire, the Cube 3D printer can create objects in real 3D over time, with the length of the time generally set out by the size and strength (hollow, strong, or solid) of the item.

Similar to a paper printer, the Cube prints line by line, except when it’s done with one layer, it moves to the next above it, laying another line of plastic lines above this, and so on and so on and so on.

Plastic cartridges can be purchased in two types of plastic, with recyclable ABS plastic and compostable PLA, with cartridge prices costing around $60 each. A plastic cartridge should be included in the box. Plastic can only be purchased in single colours.

The printer connects to your computer by way of WiFi, though a USB port is built into the side of the printer to load and print 3D objects from a thumb-drive, rather than just relying on the computer itself.

A small touchscreen LCD is included as well, to help you set the printer up and handle any extra maintenance that can be performed by the printer itself.

The printer is available in several colours.

Setup and installation

Setup is one of those things that should be easy. You should be able to plug a printer in, load up the drivers and software, and then away you go, printing your things. That’s normal, and given that this printer is sold in a consumer friendly office supply store in Australia, that would make sense.

How wrong are we.

Setting up the Cube 3D printer isn’t as simple as plugging it into the wall and then into your computer. No, it’s a much less forgiving process.

Rather, you plug it in and switch on wireless networking, because that’s how the Cube connects: WiFi.

Now there are two modes to do this: WiFi network and ad-hoc connections. Technically, WiFi network is the best in our opinion, as it would let you connect the printer up to a wireless network and print from anywhere, but we could never get it working. Ever. Ever ever ever.

It is remarkable just how poorly implemented the WiFi networking is in the Cube 3D printer, and if you can get the wireless networking going, you probably deserve a medal. A big one. Printed by the Cube 3D printer.

We tried to start the networking, went through the irritating process of selecting the right characters for our wireless network, and then waited.

And waited.

And eventually gave up and tried it again, only to discover that wireless networking wouldn’t restart unless you faked rebuilding the firmware and let it start from scratch all over again.

Long story short, don’t try to connect the Cube 3D printer through a wireless network. It’s a terrible experience, and one we’ve heard that has reduced other people to returning the printer.

Rather, grab a computer and connect directly using ad-hoc networking, installing the drivers found on the 3D Systems Cubify website, with some of the software to let you connect.

This works across both Mac and Windows, so both of the top operating systems are catered for. We found it worked best if you had a spare computer, because you could just leave it next to the printer and use it when you needed it, keeping the ad hoc connection alive and not having to disconnect from your regular wireless network just so you could use the printer.