The 3D Systems Cube 3 is one of the most compact dual-extruder 3D printers I've seen. The machine is well-designed and capable of calibrating on its own, which means it's ready to work right out of the box. It's also very easy to use and can print objects of high detail.
It's far from perfect, however. At times during my testing period, large print jobs failed half-way through the print cycle, and the printer takes a long time between jobs to cool down. The machine also uses 3D Systems' proprietary -- and expensive -- filament cartridges.
If you're on the market for a compact 3D printer to make small objects, you'll enjoy what the Cube 3 does. And at the current price tag of $999 (which converts to around £655 and AU$1,285; actual prices in those countries aren't available at this time), it's also one of the most affordable dual-extruder machine on the market. Keep in mind, however, that the total cost of ownership will climb steadily as you replenish printing supplies.
If you don't mind something larger in physical size, I'd also recommend the single-extruder, which is cheaper but also supports 3D scanning.
As the name suggests, the Cube 3 -- short for third-generation Cube -- looks like a cube, and a compact one, at that, measuring just 13.2 by 13.5 by 9.5 inches (33.5 by 34.3 by 24.1cm). Note that this is the shape of the printer with two filament cartridges already loaded inside the two recessed cartridge holders on its left and right sides.
To fully appreciate the design, you have to look at many other 3D printers where the filament holders protrude from the printer itself. With the Cube 3, when all parts are installed, its surface is mostly flush and smooth, giving the printer an almost perfect cube shape.
The printer doesn't have a lot of surface, however, since its front and back side are open, allowing you to view and work with the print platform easily. The Cube 3 is the first 3D printer I've worked with that employs an active print platform. During a print job, the platform moves backward and forward as well as up and down. This means the print-head on top just needs to move sideways. (In many other 3D printers, the print platform only moves up and down, requiring the print-head to move in all other directions.)
This kind of mechanism reduces the amount of space needed, allowing the printer to be compact, yet still have quite a large print platform. Indeed, despite the small physical size, the Cube 3 can print objects of up to 6 by 6 by 6 inches (15.25cm cubed). Judging from what we saw at CES 2015, the active platform is a new trend in 3D printing, with many upcoming printers sharing this design.
3D System Cube 3 specs
|Print Technology||Fused Deposition Modeling|
|Build volume||6 x 6 x 6 inches (15.25 x 15.25 x 15.25 cm)|
|Layer thickness||70 microns; fast mode: 200 microns|
|Printer control||Color touchscreen|
|Printable materials||ABS, PLA|
|Power source||230 V / 120 W|
|External dimensions (WHD)||13.2 x 13.5 x 9.5 inches (33.5 x 34.3 x 24.1 cm)|
|Weight||17 lbs (7.7 kg)|
|Inputs||Wi-Fi, USB thumbdrive|
|Operating system supported||Windows 7 or later, Mac OS 10.8 or later|
The printer has a removable print plate, which is the top part of the print platform. The fact you can remove it means you can easily clean the surface after a job, or prepare it with glue before starting one. The plate attaches to the platform via a magnet, making it very easy to work with since there are no latches or screws to deal with.
Proprietary and expensive filament cartridges
Out of the box, the Cube 3 is mostly assembled. You just need to remove the packaging and install the two included black and green filament cartridges.
Filaments are the raw material for fused filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printing, which is the technology used in most consumer-grade 3D printers. Think of them as the equivalent of ink cartridges in inkjet printers. They come in different colors and are basically easy-to-melt, quick-congealing plastic strings that are fed through the print head's nozzle during a print job. The print head then heats up and extrudes (that's why it's called an extruder) melted plastic onto the print platform below to create the 3D object.
Since the Cube 3 is a dual-extruder printer -- that is, one with two nozzles -- it can work with two sources of filament at the same time should you want to print objects of two colors.
Filaments always comes rolled up in spools. Many printers use open spools and allows users to pick filament of their own. The 3D System, however, put the Cube 3's spools inside its proprietary plastic cartridges. And this is both good and bad for consumers.
Good because the cartridge fits snugly into the printer as mentioned above. On top of that, each cartridge comes with a sensor that enables the printer to automatically recognize the type of filament being used (PLA or ABS), how much filament is left, and what color it is. In my testing, installing and replacing the filaments on the Cube 3 was the easiest of all 3D printers I've worked with. Each of the cartridge has a print-jet, which is the head of a filament feeding tube, that fits perfectly on top of the print-head. I didn't have to deal directly with the filament strings at all.
The downside is you have to get the filament cartridges directly from 3D Systems, and they cost $49 each. You can't refill the filament in each cartridge; rather, you have to buy a new cartridge entirely. The Cube 3 also has its own type of cartridges that are not even compatible with other 3D printers from 3D Systems, such as the CubePro for the Cube first and second generations. In testing, I couldn't print a large number of objects with one cartridge. Roughly speaking, an object that takes about 10 hours to print would use up about a fifth of a cartridge. On average, you can print about a dozen iPhone 6 Plus cases per filament cartridge.
To 3D Systems' credit, the company takes back empty cartridges for recycling and includes a return shipping label for each of them. You do have to pay the shipping cost, however.