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 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.
Once setup is done, you’ll find a piece of software ready for you to work with the Cube printer. If you’re using the Cube 3D printer over USB, you won’t need the load-in software, but if you’re relying on Mac or Windows, you will.
Most of our test was with a computer (Windows 8), so we’ll go with the software for our review. When you load this, you’ll find a 3D grid with a camera that can be moved around, simulating how the 3D model should look on the print pad.
Before you print, you need to put down a layer of thin glue on the glass pad, which will help the melted plastic prints adhere to the surface. Don’t do it, and they’ll adhere, but they also become near impossible to remove without breaking, so this is mostly done for your benefit and ease of use.
Once that’s done, simply load the 3D model into place, and decide on your settings.
Cube’s aforementioned software is similar to a 3D modelling program, only without the modelling. You can resize, rotate, and move the object to where on the small printing pad you think it should be, but that’s pretty much it.
Basically, just make sure that the program you’re using for the 3D model can export to a program the Cube can import, which appears to be STL.
When you’re ready to print, connect to the printer using the settings screen — it disconnects frequently, so make sure you’re connected directly to the printer over WiFi — and then in settings decide what sort of plastic model you want.
There appear to be differences between how the PLA and ABS plastics form on the pad, at least strength-wise, so you need to make sure you’ve nailed that one, and then you can decide on the actual strength.
“Hollow” is the lightest, and will take the least amount of time, followed by “strong” which is sort of a middle ground, and then finally there’s “solid” which takes longer, but makes a totally solid piece of plastic, compared to strong which seems to set up an almost lattice structure inside for strength, but obviously doesn’t fill every gap.
And once you’re ready, you hit “build” to make the file, which will also set up stands and a plastic platform to print to based around the shape and outline of your model. The software will even tell you how long it’ll take to print, which is a rough guide, but relatively close. If you want to speed it up, either change the size of the model, or the strength (hollow, strong, solid).
When you’re ready, hit “print” and select the file you want to print. It doesn’t have to be the file you were just working on, but if you were just working on one, the Cube software will automatically select that.
The computer will send the file to the printer, and when it’s loaded, simply hit the check button to begin the process, with the pad lifted to the plastic melting nozzle, and beginning the slow process of printing a physical object.
It’s interesting to watch, because aside for the crazy robotic music it makes — someone will remix this at one point, I can almost guarantee it — it’s like watching something appear out of thin air, and brings to life that whimsical and almost magical feeling we all had when we first saw technology work for the first time.
You can probably go off, have lunch, and come back to find it still working, because depending on the size and strength of the model, the Cube 3D printer can take anywhere between thirty minutes and several hours.
When it’s done, you should resist the urge to rip or even pry the plastic model from the glass plate. Not only is it a bad idea, but you risk breaking the model. Trust us, we managed to tear the bottom of a tiny tea cup in the process.
Rather, fill up the kitchen or bathroom sink with warm water and plunge the plate in. Once the hot water comes into contact with both the plastic and the glue on the glass, it will loosen up and allow you to pull it from the pad, leaving you with a model.
And don’t worry about the water on the plastic, because the plastic model is water resistant.
In fact, while the pad is in the water, add some detergent or soap and give it a little wash, because that’s how you remove the glue and prepare the glass pad for use again, cleaning and drying it before you put it back to use in the Cube 3D printer.
When you free the model from the glass, you’ll likely see a flat plastic residue connecting the object that reminds you of velcro.
This appears to be a thin base for all the plastic models to adhere to which can be easily detached and throw away.
The term “easy” here is a loose one, mind you, as some models are especially hard to remove this layer, and other require the trimming of the plastic edges with a filing tool.
We found that if you’re going to print something, make sure that the bottom of the model is attached to this section by changing the rotation in the 3D printer settings, otherwise you may end up with a fuzzy and pointy 3D print.
Over to the models, you’ll find that with some small details, the printer struggles, creating thin points that don’t look good up close. On other models, the work is extraordinary, with the thin lines working together to make patterns that look like brick work and clear shapes.
For the most part, this seems dependent on the model itself, though the size you print at also seems to come into play, so if something small is looking a little clumsy, increase the size of the printed model and try again.
Some models also send a little poorly on “strong” mode, with plastic at the top almost looking like it had burned or melted through. We’re not sure why this happens, though given that this is the first generation of this technology, imagine it’ll be fixed up as newer 3D printers come out, and patches are made.
When it works, the Cube 3D printer is a revelation, providing the first version of what can only be the next generation of printing technology.
At the moment, we’re printing simple things, and unnecessary things at that.
We don’t need a three dimensional GadgetGuy logo, for instance, but it’s still cool to have. I don’t need to print a tiny white Weighted Companion Cube (from the game “Portal 2”), but as a geek, I still love knowing that I can.
But there are websites devoted to things you can actually use and print for yourself, including smartphone cases, watch stands, jewellery, toys, and random objects to fill your home.
At one point, we even printed a bottle opener on the solid setting, and it even worked, opening a bottle after trying carefully not to break it. We can’t imagine opening more than four bottles before this thing snaps, but it’s still cool knowing something we printed opened something we had bought.
And then there’s the “Mr. Fix-it” type scenarios, of which there are quite a few.
If you end up breaking the door off a camera (which an ex-girlfriend did to one owned by this reviewer), you could print a new one and hook it back on.
Need a new door knob? Print one.
How about hooks for your home, or even an iPhone wall mount? All printable.
The downside to this is knowing that someone is going to have to make 3D models of these, and the skills needed for making those digital 3D models aren’t included with the printer.
And frankly, there is a steep learning curve for anyone keen to try their hands at 3D modelling. It’s not like opening up Paint and spraying a canvas with a digital paintbrush. Modelling takes time, and is closer to working out of clay than just taking a photo and making the 3D version of that appear.
You could start with the free 3D modelling application Blender, but there are loads out there, with Lightwave, 3D Studio Max, Maya, and Modo ranking among this journalist’s favourite to use. Courses can be found online, and there are loads of tutorials.
Plus 3D Systems (the maker of the Cube printer) has its own software that you can use to make models, though it is optional and does cost extra.
But if you’re lazy and/or don’t care to dabble in 3D model making, there are other things you can try, helping you get around the learning curve that is “3D vs 2D.”
One of these is Tinkercad, an online browser-based 3D creation tool that can let you use simple tools to create some complicated objects, with the end result being a file that can be printed by the Cube 3D printer.
Another option is to scan in an object, person, or animal using a 3D scanner. These are harder to come by, but Autodesk has helped make the process easier with 123D Catch, an iPhone app that works together with a Windows software counterpart to make 3D models from multiple photos. Our experience with this has been hit and miss, but if you nail the photos from all angles, you might get lucky.
The easiest option, though, is to get the 3D files from a repository, and there are a few of these around.
Our favourite — by far — is Thingiverse, a website connected with another 3D printer manufactured by MakerBot.
Thingiverse is more or less what the name implies, and represents a universe of “things” you can download and print. They could be ornaments, smartphone cases, watch holders, bracelets, beads; anything, really, and there are a ton of 3D files you can look through and start playing with.
On the down side…
3D printing is a new concept, and really, owning a 3D printer puts you at the forefront of what will likely be the next technological revolution. No longer will you have to wait to buy that iPhone case, and you can even prototype your own furniture or product concepts.
But it is a new technology, and as a result it does come with its own set of issues.
The first one is the setup, which is just plain awful. We’ve already been through it, and have dedicated a section on it in the first part of this review, but it’s just abysmal.
Be patient with the Cube and you’ll get far, provided you read the manual. Assume you know it all and that it’s like every other computer peripheral you’ve ever used and, well, let’s just say you may find the urge to throw the thing out the window.
3D Systems hasn’t made it any easier by throwing a USB port on the back of the printer, because while it’s a wireless only device, it still has this old school USB port, which is apparently there for delivering firmware updates, but can’t be used to hook the printer up to your computer.
Call us crazy, but printers should generally offer both forms of connection — wired and wireless — and if your wireless option is buggy, the USB port should do more than let you deliver updates.
When you do get the Cube 3D printer working, you’ll find that it should sit somewhere lonely where people won’t be bothered by the annoying sounds that it makes.
We’re not kidding about this, because this is one noisy device.
If you can imagine robot clowns singing at the top of their lungs for at least an hour non-stop — and depending on the size of the model, longer — that’s basically what the Cube 3D printer sounds like. If you think it’ll be relatively silent like other paper printers out there, well, you’re mistaken. Very mistaken.
Maintenance is also something that is required by the printer, and not the sort that normally exists on paper-based ones, like paper jams and ink head cleaning. We’re talking manual maintenance, and some of it can take time.
For instance, if your prints don’t align properly on the pad, you need to make sure everything is level, which is a manual process involving pressing a few buttons and making sure the Cube printer has a firm grip on a piece of paper.
Your melted plastic can also get stuck in the nozzle, which requires you to pick it out using pliers.
And before you print, you need to lay down a level of clear glue on the printing pad: too much glue and it doesn’t work properly, and not enough glue and the plastic is next to impossible to scrape off without scrubbing in hot water (as seen above).
As we said, it’s a new technology, but just be aware of the maintenance issues before you go in, because it’s not like the occasional paper jam, as this is a more hands-on product.
While this is the first printer for consumers to showcase the future of printing, it’s clear that Cube’s printer isn’t really ready for regular everyday mum and dad. In fact, the setup issues and steep learning curve required for 3D modelling means that all you’ll be able to regularly do is download and print models, rather than build them yourself.
That’s not a bad thing, mind you, and if you’ve been itching to learn Lightwave, Blender, 3DS Max, or Maya, owning a 3D printer could just be the kick in the pants you were looking for, since you’ll be able to print those ideas into real physical items that occupy more space than just the z axis on your computer’s screen.
Even if you’re not interested in learning 3D modelling, the availability of 3D models can make this a really interesting product to own, especially if you’re into making things around the house. Hooks, accessories — hell, you can even spend a couple of days printing your own custom chess set.
We have no doubt that in a few years, physical printing will be a norm, and a much more stabilised and better developed norm. Right now, though, it’s the sort of early adoption project that not everyone needs, but if you’re curious, it does bring the future to your desktop now.