If there’s one sort of device I’ve never got along well with, it is printers. Despite being a moderately nerdy man, who is usually the one in the room who ends up having to fix the computer, and having built a reputation for being tech savvy, printers are just beyond me.
Loading ink? What a pain. Aligning the paper? Nightmare. What to do when it stops mid-print and gets jammed up? Time to panic.
Which is why it was with some trepidation that I signed for a delivery of a CEL Robox 3D printer, which the company kindly sent me to use for a week.
3D printers are supposed to be the future – and are increasingly a common occurence in the present. Able to sculpt plastic out of thin air, an earlier age would have labelled them witchcraft, but they have found use for things like rapid prototyping or creating custom widgets and connectors. Need to plug your iPhone on to a camera tripod but lack the right connector? Give the printer an hour or so and it will no longer be a problem.
So how did I get on?
Setting Things Up
Getting started was surprisingly straightforward. Robox had kindly set the demo unit it had sent me ready to go, but I still studiously studied the instructions to make sure everything was setup correctly – adding a spool of 3D ‘ink’ (for lack of a better term) seems pretty straightforward.
On the computer side of things, all I had to do was install the Automaker software and plug in the USB lead. It detected the printer fine and I was essentially ready to go.
Before my first print, I had to calibrate the print head. This simply involved following some on-screen instructions and sliding a piece of paper in between the head and the tray, so it can calculate exactly where it needs to print.
From this point, it was simply on to printing.
Brilliantly, the Automaker software is super easy to use – it seems pretty idiot proof. All you have to do is drag and drop the 3D model file (an .STL) on to the virtual tray, position it how you like (flipping it around, resizing if necessary) and hit “send to printer”.
There are several key controls at this point – where you can choose the quality that you print at, and how solid the printer should make the interior of objects. These range from “draft” (with 10% volume) – for faster prints, with ‘blockier’ outcomes, to 100% volume fine-printed objects
Once configured, it is simply a case of hitting the print button and it’ll send the instructions to the printer. Printing can take several hours, but luckily once the printer has all of the details (which takes a few minutes to transfer) you can unplug and go about your day, leaving the printer to do its thing in the corner.
One rather cool feature too is the ability to print designs straight from the cloud. CEL has partnered with a website that contains thousands of different STL designs for you to print – and using the in-app browser, you can find stuff you want and print it without having to faff around with downloads and zip files. Brilliant.
So first off I started with something simple – what Robox recommend that you print first. A 3D elephant. This was printed on the lowest settings – draft mode, with the lowest density, and it took maybe 45 minutes to an hour to print. And it turned out great.
Watching the Robox print is pretty mesmerising – at least for a while. The pen draws 3D objects in layers, so you can (very) slowly watch it trace out and build up layers.
Feeling confident after my first print, I then tried to dive in and print a case for my Raspberry Pi 2. As you can see in the above photo, it was mostly successful – until it got to the tricky bit at the end.
I then tried 3D printing this ridiculous shark with arms – and as you can see things got a bit messy.
What I failed to realise with both the Pi case and the Shark is that I should have enabled “scaffolding” in the Automaker app – which would have built literal scaffolding that could have been cut or snapped off to prevent this sort of thing happening.
My last attempt at printing was rather more successful. One of the best uses for 3D printing is creating a widget that will connect two things don’t usually go together – like Lego and K’Nex. With this in mind, I was trying to figure out a way to mount my iPhone 6 on a standard camera tripod with a ¼” screw – and as luck would have it, someone has already created a design for this. So I just downloaded the STL, fired up the printer away it went. After a few hours, I was able to pick the new widget up from the tray, screw it on to my tripod and I was sorted. (Ignore the broken bits on the left – that was my fault…).
If I’d had more time, I’d no doubt have managed to master the printing – and have filled my house with green plastic figures in the process.
So what did I think? I thought it was amazing. For years we’ve heard about 3D printing and with the CEL Robox, you can for the first time imagine it as a technology that isn’t just for the laboratory or for the technically minded – its possible to imagine normal people and, say, small businesses actually using 3D printing to build useful things.
Certainly the skill barriers are much reduced – the Robox takes 3D printing and makes it something that someone with no specific technical skills can use to create.
That said, it all comes at a price. The Robox will currently set you back around £1000 for the printer – and £25 for each spool refill (which to be fair, seems better value than most printer ink…). But is it worth it for a grand? If you want a really, really cool toy to play with, it could be – and whilst there will be times that I’ll think it’d be useful to 3D print something, it isn’t like I can’t live without one.
The hardware itself is easy to use – and whilst I can’t claim a tonne of expertise, compared to other 3D printers I’ve seen this one seems the most like it hasn’t just been cobbled together. That said, it would be nice if it had network connectivity rather than just USB, so the printer could sit in another room and printing could be triggered from anywhere in the house – but this is only a small inconvenience.
So over all – Robox is perhaps the first indication that 3D printing as a mainstream activity is finally here.
See our interview with CEL Robox Managing Director Chris Elsworthy from Gadget Show Live below: