3D printing is the next manufacturing revolution, they tell us. No longer will we need to trek down to the store to buy that widget – we can print one at home. Most affordable 3D printers are sold as self-assembly kits, involving weeks of tinkering to get even the most basic print, but the Cubify Cube promises to be plug-and-plug with minimal fuss. Does it live up to that promise?
The Cube weighs in at a hefty $1299, on the upper middle price range for consumer grade 3D printers. The superior Makerbot Replicator 2 costs $2200, while the cheapest you can find is the Printrbot Simple ($400). The Cube does however, suck you into a closed marketplace for consumables.
Regardless of what’s inside, as it sits in my living room – huge and imposing – it urges me to open and discover the very future of home production systems.
The packaging reminds me of the original iMac; it might even be the same font. Compared to most 3D printers available at the moment, the Cube is very much a consumer device, focussed on ease of use – a parallel of what the original Macintosh attempted to do for computing – taking a relatively complex hobby/DIY concept and packaging it up neatly. At least, that’s what they’re marketing it as.
After unlocking two plastic clips on the side, the box lifts up and you can lift out the printer.
The Cube itself is heavy, with a high strength plastic case. We chose silver, though a variety of colours are available. Even made of plastic, it feels anything but cheap – the weight and solidity of the structure are impressive.
What’s In The Box
After lifting the main unit out of the box, you’ll find a quick start guide and thick glass print table. Unlike many 3D printers, the print platform is not heated – you’ll see why this is relevant later.
Also in the box, you’ll find:
- Neon green PLA cartridge
- USB flash drive pre-loaded with 25 designs
- Unclogging tool
- Print head removal tool
- Tube of CubeStick
- Power cable
- USB cable
We’ve also ordered 3 additional colour reels, though I offer no guarantee that I won’t have used used all the glow-in-the-dark blue filament by the time this Cube makes it’s way to the winner.
There is a small amount of setup needed before you can print. First, the user guide instructs you to turn on the printer and activate it online – you’ll need to register and get the 4 digit activation code before you can do anything. Yes, this thing is DRM’ed.
The small screen on the front of Cube is touch-based and doesn’t include a full keyboard, which works fine for inputting from a possible ten numbers, but was particularly frustrating when typing in my ridiculously long wireless password. It literally took 10 minutes. Even if you do manage to get the software to connect to the printer (I had issues on my regular network and had to setup a test network; even then it wouldn’t remember the network between sessions), transferring files over Wifi is so slow that saving them to the supplied USB key is by far the preferred option.
Despite the presence of a USB socket round the back, and a supplied USB cable, you cannot actually connect to the printer over USB for anything other than transferring new firmware. Whoever programmed the Cube to not work over USB really needs to be fired immediately: they’ve simplified things so much that usability has completely regressed.
Finally, you’ll want to “optimise the z-gap”: the distance between your print head and the print pad. This is simple process and only requires a piece of paper. From the setup menu, select the Set Z-gap option, and the print pad will fly upwards to meet the nozzle. Slide a piece of paper between the nozzle and pad and adjust the height using on-screen controls until it’s just able to move freely – this is the ideal z-gap.
At every step of the way, the built-in touchscreen LCD panel walks you through the process.
Once you’re signed up and activated, you needn’t wait to start printing something cool – the Cube comes with 25 free professional designs included on the USB stick or for download online.
All printing begins with the included Cube print preparation software. It’s used to import designs, scale them as you want, check for potentials problems and then process the final design for printing. This sounds more complicated than it is – the software just slices up the model into hundreds of layers.
After loading in a model, use the “Heal” button to fix small errors. It may also be necessary to add “rafts” or “supports”, so that your model doesn’t collapse. these are just additional columns or rafts that will add support while printing – you can cut them away after, easily.
There are 3 structural settings you can use: hollow, solid, or strong. The first should be obvious, the last is special setting that automatically prints an internal support structure to strike a balance between structural strength and total print volume.
Once you’re ready to go, the build button creates a ready-to-print file and gives you a time estimate; these can be sent directly over WiFi, or saved to a USB stick to print via the machine itself. My second print – a glow in the dark bionic lamp shade thing – was estimated at around 14 hours.
Cubify Capture is similar to 123D Catch – harnessing the power of the cloud to transform your photographs into a 3D model.
As well as the simple ability to print .STL files, obtained through Thingiverse, the Cubify shop, or even the The Pirate Bay, Cubify also provide a number of simple web apps. These are mostly toys – making bracelets, or Christmas ornaments for instance – but it’s a nice, user-friendly way to customise objects.
Cubify also sell a number of professional 3D design applications ranging from $80 to $800, but these aren’t critical to using the printer. In the standard package, no design software is included – so you’re limited to using the web apps, existing designs, or downloading a third party tool like Google SketchUp.
Consumables: CubeStick and Cartridge
Along with being a consumer grade printer, comes DRM and consumables; I’ve already talked about having to “activate” your Cube 3D printer online, but you should also be aware of running costs associated with the consumable. Like most printers, they’ll get you on the cartridges!
In the Cube, there are two consumable items. The first is the CubeStick, a stick of glue which must be applied to the print pad prior to every print. It’s basically like greasing up a baking tray, only with glue instead; and costs $9 to replace. The second is the cartridges: prices are comparable to laser printers, with a single color cartridge at $49, and a pack of 3 with a slight discount at $139. Your rate of consumption will vary according to what exactly you print.
The Cube prints additively by spewing a jet of molten plastic out of the print head nozzle. The glass print bed begins at the top of the device, and gradually moves down as the print continues. In many 3D printer, the print head itself will do all of the movement. On the Cube, the print head only moves along one axis (left and right); the print bed therefore moves back and forth, as well as up and down.
At a layer thickness of 200 microns (1/5 mm) it means you can see the lines if you look closely, but generally speaking the models have great accuracy. If you’re expecting shop-grade smooth plastic though, you should probably adjust your expectations – you will know that they’ve been 3D printed.
Each print begins by selecting the file from the USB stick or waiting for the WiFi transfer to finish. You then need to apply a layer of glue to the glass plate – this ensures the first layer of plastic has something to stick to. Others swear by blue painters tape, which could be cheaper than the $9 glue sticks. Loading the print onto the machine takes anywhere from 1 to 15 minutes depending on the complexity of the model.
Here’s a 10x video of the printer in action:
The largest size you can print is 5.5 inch cubed; though you can of course break a larger model into smaller pieces and attach them together later if needed.
Does It Work?
Most errors occur within the first 10 minutes of a print – in general, if manages to get past the initial few layers without issue, the rest of the print should be fine.
The Cube prints with both PLA and ABS filaments (what’s the difference?): the neon green supplied in the package was PLA, while the additional cartridges we purchased were ABS. The initial test print I did with the supplied Rook model was fantastic – it took about an hour, but the detail is amazing. There’s even a spiral staircase running through the middle – of course, the quality of print is going to depend a lot on the source material.
Unfortunately, printing in ABS was a lot harder than PLA. Anything over about 1.5 inches in diameter ended up warping significantly – bending upwards, such that at some point the print head would catch on it, and push the print off. Here’s the result of my first three attempts of printing with ABS, which mostly turned into neon blue plastic spaghetti.
Other printers get around this problem by using a heated print bed – it’s the cooling process that causes the warping. The Cube doesn’t have a heated bed – only “Cube glue” – but it’s just not as effective with ABS plastics.
This was my first semi-successful print in ABS – occasionally, I would hear a distinct crack as some of the ABS pulled away from the layer beneath. I certainly wouldn’t suggest putting water in the vase, but otherwise I’m reasonably pleased with it.
Other attempts, even with very small parts, were utterly hopeless. I’ve come to the conclusion this thing just cannot print in ABS reliably.
After about my third unsuccessful print, the print head jammed somehow, and filament stopped flowing completely. I tried the procedure for unblocking the nozzle – by going through a cartridge change but sticking in a long metal poker instead of new filament. If this fails, support will send you an “advanced cleaning guide” which involves unscrewing and dissecting the print head. Luckily, I didn’t need to go that far. The other most common error you’ll find is “filament flow” error, which usually means the filament is stuck in the cartridge somehow. It’s especially frustrating to wake up to a failure in the middle of a 14-hour print since there is no resume function. This is the reality of using a 3D printer.
Is It Worth It?
3D printing is slow, no doubt about it. If you thought you’d bring some friends over and knock them up a little trinket to take home, think again – you better plan well in advance. The rook figure took 1.5 hours; the lampshade was supposed to take 14, but it failed half way through and I didn’t have the will to try again. You do need to be forgiving with a 3D printer – don’t set your hopes too high, and you won’t be disappointed.
There’s a certain musical beauty to 3D printing. The 3 axes and print head each have a unique sound, such that when combined in an algorithmically calculated printing path, they create what could only be described as 3D music – each print will “sound” unique. That might sound dumb, but as I sit here staring at the print process, it’s what strikes me as the most beautiful part of 3D printing.
An overwhelming question I kept asking myself was, “What can I print that would be genuinely useful?” and I sorry to say I came up blank. You can make some pretty awesome party favors though!
Should You Buy The Cubify Cube 3D Printer?
The technology just isn’t at a point where we can call it consumer-friendly yet, but the Cube makes a good try. You’re limited to PLA realistically, but if you’re only looking to make trinkets for the kids this is a good solution with a reasonable amount of maintenance and excellent print quality.
For ABS printing and those looking for a reliable, user-friendly no-maintenance solution or for large prints, you should probably wait a few more years. If you’re the kind of person who just wants to have a go at 3D printing and wouldn’t mind a bit of tinkering or DIY work, the Cube probably isn’t for you – look at cheaper kits for a third of the price and not tied to specific cartridges.
How do I win the Cubify Cube 3D Printer?
You may enter by submitting your name and email address. You’ll receive one entry simply by doing so.
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