Autodesk is now selling an open-source 3D printer

Autodesk’s first foray into hardware is here: The Ember 3D printer is now available for anyone to order.

At $5,995, the printer isn’t exactly a steal. Autodesk more so built it to be the perfect exhibitor for its open-source Spark 3D printing software, which is currently in beta.

Ember in the middle of a print.

Ember in the middle of a print.

People married to Autodesk’s suite of software might find that pairing of interest, but the greater 3D printing industry might buy Ember because Autodesk plans to release exactly how it is built and operates. MakerBot, the best known desktop 3D printer brand, gave rise to an entire class of printers because its first machines were similarly open source. Ember could do the same for a different desktop technology.

I had the chance to see Ember in action at Autodesk’s Pier 9 manufacturing space in San Francisco. It’s a digital light processing machine, which means it uses a projector similar to those found in those bulky classroom machines. Light hits a shallow tank of liquid plastic and cures it one layer at a time, slowly building up an entire 3D object.

Ember after a print, displaying a completed object.

Ember after a print, displaying a completed object.

Unlike most desktop machines, which print layers of melted plastic that then hardens, DLP machines print upside down. The printed object’s base adheres to a flat metal sheet that slowly raises out of the tank of liquid. The platform raises slightly between each layer to separate the already-printed layers from the liquid, a necessary step in DLP printing.

The Ember printer handles that last step in an unusual way. The tank is shaped like a cashew; a half-“C” instead of the square shape used by every other DLP printer. After each layer is printed, the print platform raises slightly and the tank whips around the curve of the machine before returning to its home position.

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Autodesk chose the unusual tank design because it requires the machine to use a lot less force, according to Autodesk 3D printing research scientist Andreas Bastian. Each time the projector cures a layer, it creates a huge amount of suction between the 3D printed object and the bottom of the resin tank. Bastian likened Ember’s system to removing a suction cup from a window by sliding it across the surface instead of pulling directly up.

He said that has the added benefit of exerting less force on the 3D printed object, making it easier to print delicate structures that can’t take a lot of strain.

The Ember is expected to ship by mid-March, pending approval from the FCC. Autodesk has yet to release the actual open-source documentation for the machine, or even footage that shows that goofy tank in action, but my personal run-in with the printer at Pier 9 was welcome confirmation that Ember really exists, and really works.

This post was updated at 4:45 p.m. with more details on the Ember’s resin tank.

New Matter raises $6.5M to deliver on its crowdfunded 3D printer

New Matter’s MOD-t, one of the hit crowdfunded 3D printers of 2014, is nearing its shipment day, and the startup announced today it will finish out development and production with the help of $6.5 million in Series A funding.

Alsop Louie Partners led the funding round. First Round Capital, Dolby Family Ventures and frogVentures also participated.

CEO Steve Schell said New Matter will use the funding to hire more people and firm up a product and manufacturing line that will allow the company to deliver its 3D printer to its 2,000 Indiegogo backers and anyone who bought it after the campaign’s close. New Matter expects the MOD-t to have all the features promised on Indiegogo, but will announce a small delay in shipping this week, Schell said.

New Matter is still focused on delivering a low-cost printer (likely just below $400 at retail) that’s simple to use and paired with a library of 3D printable models, Schell said. While other inexpensive printers have continued to enter the market, Schell said New Matter continues to see confirmation it is on the right track.

“We see more and more competitors coming into existence,” Schell said. “It’s healthy competition; it shows it’s a market of interest. I still feel we’re offering the most compelling product.”

Full Spectrum Laser debuts 2 3D printers that fit on your desk

Full Spectrum Laser, the 3D printing company behind the Pegasus Touch printer, is back with its second line of desktop printers. And while other companies are expanding into larger machines, FSL is doing the opposite.

The new Phoenix Touch and Phoenix Touch Pro will have build areas measuring in at 3.78 x 2.13 x 3.94 inches and 2.5 x 1.6 x 3.9, respectively, compared to the Pegasus Touch’s 7 x 7 x 9 inches. Their overall size is similarly scaled down, making them a better fit for already-crowded desktops.

The Phoenix Touch Pro.

The Phoenix Touch Pro.

FSL’s printers use a more unusual 3D printing technology known as digital light processing. DLP uses almost the exact technology found in overhead projectors to project light onto a vat of liquid plastic. The light causes the resin to cure layer by layer, gradually building up a hard object.

Like stereolithography, a similar 3D printing technology that uses a laser to cure liquid resin, DLP is an excellent option for achieving super-fine detail in 3D prints. The new Phoenix Touch will be able to print layers as thin as 0.05 millimeters.

No prices have been released, but if the $3,499 Pegasus Touch is any indication, FSL is likely to keep the machines’ price tags on the lower end of the spectrum.

3D printed objects on the Pro's bed.

3D printed objects on the Pro’s bed.

A cheap solution for multi-color desktop 3D printing is coming

The biggest hurdle to bringing full-color desktop 3D printing to all is really a software problem, and a Madison, Wis., startup believes it is close to a solution.

When I first checked in with Spectrom last March, co-founders Cedric Kovaks-Johnson and Charles Haider were able to print each layer of an object in a different color. Desktop 3D printing has long been a one- or two-color affair. Printers that work in two colors tend to have two nozzles, each of which draws plastic filament from a different spool. Not Spectrom. The startup actually uses ink to dye the same strand of filament different colors along its length, opening up a full range of colors.

Since March, the team, which is now composed of four people, has accomplished printing multiple colors in a single layer (a feat that won the team the undergraduate Collegiate Inventors Competition in November). The transition between colors is also now sharp; shifting from yellow to blue does not yield a patch of green in the middle.

But the final hurdle is allowing each tiny pixel of 3D printed material to take any color. Spectrom’s system uses inks to dye filament different colors. Its software designates the exact amount of filament that needs to be dyed for a red layer or a blue square within a layer. It’s much more complicated to build software that can account for the color of each drop of filament, but Spectrom believes it is doable.

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A release date has not yet been set for Spectrom, but the startup is working toward an independent release and integrating with partners. Spectrom appeared at CES with ROBO, a 3D printer maker that is considering integrating Spectrom directly into its printers.

Spectrom has patented its software, add-on hardware and custom filaments and inks, but Kovaks-Johnson said the goal is “not to gouge people.”

“We want to make sure this is a really fair and inexpensive way to use color,” Kovaks-Johnson said.

Robox review: This 3D printer is great for beginners but lacks in print quality

I’ve spent the past two years waiting for a 3D printer that a beginner can unbox and just start using. The CEL Robox wins the award for the first printer I’ve used that actually does that.

It does so with smart features like an auto-leveling print head and print bed that requires no extra help to keep prints firmly stuck to its surface. It’s relatively fast and friendly, and for $1,499 it’s competitive with the cheaper printers on the market.

Unfortunately, it has some disappointing flaws when it comes to print quality. Here’s a look at how the printer performed over a month of tests:

My best print. The layers are so fine you can hardly tell it came off a 3D printer.

My best print. The layers are so fine you can hardly tell it came off a 3D printer.

Setup

The Robox has the fastest setup of any printer I have ever encountered. It’s ready to print out of the box; all you need to do is download software and install the filament spool.

The spool is proprietary. That’s generally irritating because it makes it difficult to use inexpensive, generic-brand plastic. CEL’s filament is extremely expensive — $59 for 1.54 pounds, compared to the $30 you pay for 2.2 pounds of cheap plastic.

However, CEL doesn’t take any measures to prevent you from winding your own off-brand of filament around the spool. It’s annoying to have to rewind filament, but potentially worth it for the benefits CEL’s system brings.

The Robox's spool sits flush with its side. It contains a chip so it can be recognized by the printer.

The Robox’s spool sits flush with its side. It contains a chip so it can be recognized by the printer.

The spool sits snugly in the side of the Robox, where there are also two holes for feeding filament into the machine. You insert the filament into the hole and the Robox pulls it the rest of the way in. It’s easy.

And that’s it. You are ready to print.

The software

CEL’s software, Automaker, is not exceptionally well-designed or smart. But it gets you through what you need to do relatively intuitively.

The program’s home screen displays the printer. Its parts are interactive: You can tell the printer to move its bed forward or backward or even change the color of the light illuminating the print head.

The home screen also displays the temperature of different parts of the printer. A pullout screen has advanced features such as nozzle calibration.

New print jobs are opened in tabs. You can have multiple tabs at once, which I found very useful for deciding between different prints and saving models for the near future. When you open a tab, you are presented with a rotating view of your model. You can scale it, duplicate it and move it around with easy-to-understand buttons.

Prepping to print.

Prepping to print.

My main gripe with the software was it gave no warning of errors. It wasn’t capable of recognizing the steep overhangs that can cause a print to fail. It couldn’t fix the models downloaded from Thingiverse that might contain errors.

Twice, I didn’t realize the filament was not fed all the way into the machine. There was no indication until suddenly the “print” button didn’t exist, for which no reason was given. At one point, the print bed was also homing itself at the wrong location, causing it to jam into the front and back of the printer and calibrate the print head incorrectly. The software never noted anything was wrong.

The machine

The Robox's cover lifts up to reveal the bed.

The Robox’s cover lifts up to reveal the bed.

Let’s start with the aesthetics. The Robox looks great. As I noted in my coverage of Robox’s $450,000 crowdfunding campaign, it feels a bit like the Apple iMac G3 — it’s candy-colored and fun. It’s also small and sleek, and has a profile shaped like an iMessage chat bubble.

The front of the machine has a transparent cover that slides up to give access to the print bed. The bed sits very low to the printer’s floor and is capable of moving forward and backward. The print chamber is separate from the machine’s electronics, allowing the chamber to be heated to a higher temperature and prints to cool more evenly. A few of my prints did end up with curled corners, which indicates that they cooled unevenly, but most turned out fine.

Bulbasaur and Charmander fresh off the Robox's unusual PEI print bed.

Bulbasaur and Charmander fresh off the Robox’s unusual PEI print bed

The Robox has an unusual print bed made from polyetherimide, a plastic that becomes sticky when it is hot. Most 3D printer beds need to be covered in painter’s tape, glue, hairspray or another type of gunky material in order for a print to stick nicely to them. Not the Robox’s bed. Stuff sticks great.

Once the bed cools down and loses its special heated properties, items are supposed to pop off easily. That was the case most of the time. But whenever I printed something flat, like a coaster or a keychain, it became a game of strength and will to get it off. So be warned.

The Robox uses two nozzles to get the job done.

The Robox uses two nozzles to get the job done. This print’s corners curled.

The Robox’s biggest advancement is its print head. It has two nozzles, one of which is dedicated to printing fine details and the other to infill. The infill nozzle puts out far more filament, which allows the printer to work faster. Considering I sometimes ran the printer for several days straight on a large print (which it handled with ease), it was a great option to be able to shave some time off printing the unimportant inside of an object. Every printer should have this feature.

Oh, and when CEL says its printer is auto-leveling, it really means it. Before every print the print head touches itself to the print bed several times to ensure both of the nozzles are at the right height. It’s a confidence-boosting display that the printer is in working order, and it always got the calibration right.

I actually worked with two separate Robox printers. The first printer worked well until it randomly would not turn on one day. CEL was stumped on the issue, and eventually the printer just resumed working.

My worst and best prints on the Robox. The Bulbasaur on the left is a victim of the oozing nozzle.

My worst and best prints on the Robox. The Bulbasaur on the left is a victim of the oozing nozzle.

The second printer arrived with two problems. The bed homed itself in the wrong location, causing the print head to calibrate incorrectly. It turned out there was filament wedged in the bed’s path. The larger nozzle also oozed small dabs of filament intermittently, which led to some terrible-looking prints. This was likely caused by a faulty spring in the print head, which only a CEL technician could fix.

The prints

Unfortunately, the quality of the prints that came off the Robox was inconsistent. They tended to have at least one error, if not more. The printer sometimes struggled with fine details.

Charmanders printed at low, medium and high quality.

Charmanders printed at low, medium and high quality.

The Robox is actually capable of printing very fine layers — down to .02 millimeters in height. That’s unusual for a fused deposition modeling-style 3D printer. I was able to print some really fantastic-looking pieces with the Robox set at its highest quality setting. The layers are so fine that you almost can’t tell the item came off a 3D printer.

The takeaway

There is quite a bit to love about the CEL Robox. It’s built to be nearly maintenance-free, making it perfect for anyone more interested in making things than tinkering with a machine.

But it also had slip-ups, little errors here and there that marred an otherwise perfect print. For anyone who needs consistently good-looking prints, the Robox is not your printer.

Two prints with curled corners and inconsistent details.

Two prints with curled corners and inconsistent details.

Overall, the Robox almost makes my list of printers I would not mind owning. I loved the auto-leveling print head and confidence that every print would adhere to the bed. And it looks great sitting on any home desk. But the number of times prints came out with obvious errors was a deal breaker for me. That’s a shame because CEL gets everything else just right.

This is the first object ever 3D printed in space

In a historical milestone, the first 3D printer in space has produced the first object ever printed in space: a faceplate for the printer’s own extruder printhead. The Made in Space 3D printer reached the ISS on Sept. 22, but had to wait its turn behind other science experiments until it was installed Nov. 17. Now that it’s nestled in — and functioning — it’s likely to change life on board, allowing astronauts to manufacture hardware instead of waiting for a rocket to bring it to them.