The AIO Robotics ZEUS is an easy to use 3D printer, scanner and copier – but is it actually useful?
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So i’ve got this little angle figure, and what’s better than one of these cheesy decoration pieces? You guessed it – two of them! But, when it comes to consumer 2D desktop inkjet printers, it’s pretty clear that the “all in one” class of devices has won by a far stretch, combining printing, scanning, copying and faxing documents into a single, convenient package. There’s not been a real equivalent in the 3D world yet – but that’s exactly what AIO Robotics announced with their ZEUS machine on Kickstarter in 2013, which smashed through their funding goal on the first day and then got funded with pretty much the same amount of pledges they had after that one day. Three years later, we now have a matured version of that same design, and judging by how many users go out of their way to create an Amazon account just to give their praise for the ZEUS, it looks like their concept is working out pretty well with the current iteration of their machine. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get right into it. And copy a few of these angels in the process.
So even on the first look, you’ll notice that the ZEUS is quite different from what’s currently the standard approach to 3D printing. It’s a design that reminds me of the crazy 5-axis industrial CNC mills from someone like DMG MORI, but scaled down. The entire construction is sheet metal, similar to how those 2D inkjet printers are built, there’s a door on the left side to house the filament spool and this large, sliding acrylic portal to the machine’s actual build and scan volume. The ZEUS is quite heavy, but it’s easy to lug around with the built-in handles on the bottom. On the front, there’s a really comfortably sized 7” capacitive touchscreen with two USB host ports and on the back, there’s a Kensington lock cutout, an USB slave and Ethernet port, a power switch and the power input jack, which unfortunately is rather loose and not a locking type like the Ultimaker’s, it doesn’t quite slide out on its own, but i did manage to pull it out in a heartbeat once, thinking it was the USB cord. Most of this hooks up to the built-in single-board computer, which is packed into the bottom of the filament compartment. The USB port actually doesn’t go anywhere, and the power input goes through the custom-made control board, which uses an Arduino-compatible ATMEGA chip and seems to run a customized version of Marlin. However there’s no attribution given or source code published. Still, if you ever wanted to, you could simply hook up the control board to your own computer and use it without the built-in software, but that’s what makes the AIO Zeus special in the first place.
As you boot up the ZEUS, it starts a full-blown install of Lubuntu and then goes on to load the AIO Robotics interface, which presents you with four options: Print, scan, Search and Apps. Gone is the Fax functionality that used to be part of the original announcement, but i don’t think that’s going to be missed much, since it would have required a ZEUS machine on either end and relied on the built-in scanning only. Now, the print menu takes you through exactly what you’d expect it to do – it lets you print 3D files, be it from the onboard storage, from previous scans or from USB thumb drives you connect to the machine. You get previews of the files, pick one, slice it right on the machine itself and then print it. You can do basic scaling or rotating on the parts, and insert pauses at certain heights of your prints, either to swap in a different filament color, or to insert parts like nuts or magnets into your print. And that workflow for 3D printing actually works pretty well. The slicer, which is a version of Slic3r underneath, again with no attribution given, has just its most important settings exposed in the simple wizard, but you can always dig in and adjust more, which i quite liked. Due to the limited hardware, neither the 3D previews nor the slicing process are particularly fast, actually, you could say it’s painfully slow, with most of my slicing jobs running between 15 seconds for something really simple and 15 minutes or more for something a bit larger. It would have been nice to see an option to automatically start the print job once the slicing is done, since you’re just waiting on that process to click two more buttons.
Let’s move on to the scanning part of the software, the other big menu point, you place your object on the ZEUS’ build table, select a scan diameter to minimize ghost features that might be picked up from the background, pick how many sides the part should be scanned from and hit go. If you want to change the scan height, you have to recalibrate the entire scanner unit, which takes quite a while, so i rarely did that. What also takes an enormous amount of time is the scanning itself and the post-processing the software goes through afterwards, which might actually be based on the Meshlab. An eight-sided scan, which is the highest coverage you can select, takes about 45 minutes to complete, and then roughly another 45 minutes to post-process. Once that’s done, you can head back to the print menu, and print a copy of your heavenly scan, or use an undocumented feature to copy the entire package of raw and processed scan files to a USB drive, which allows you to then post-process them however you like on a computer with your own software. Also, you can upload and download files through a simple file browser if you connect the ZEUS to your network with the included USB wifi stick or through the traditional Ethernet jack.
These next two points in the main menu also use the internet connectivity, but feel a bit lackluster, with the first one being a search function to find printable models on Thingiverse or MyMiniFactory. While it just didn’t seem to find that one design i actually wanted to print, which was featured on the Thingiverse front page, once you do pick a file, the print process is straightforward. Again, the interface for this is slow and takes a while to load results and previews for your searches.
And the last option in the main menu, “Apps” is currently only home to one app that gives you a few pages of tips, but the idea is to have more and eventually also third-party apps in here, for example Thingiverse-Customizer-like options, generators for various 3D files or an e-Nable prosthetic hand print assistant.
While the software overall is really comfortable to use if you don’t mind the long processing times, i did have a few issues with how undercooked it felt. On the very first bootup, the AIO software failed to load and i had to start it manually from the Linux desktop, it also crashed a few times during use, but thankfully never while scanning or printing. It also routinely refused to let me start another scan or print process after completing one, so i found myself rebooting the entire printer many times, and it often failed to start up again during that reboot.
On the upside, though, the system is not far off from being a totally standard computer just integrated into the machine, so if you ever feel like replacing at least the 3D printer part of the software, you could just as easily run a full Cura, Pronterface or OctoPrint install on here. Both the username and password for the default user are just aio, so you’re pretty free to do whatever you like with the system.
I also did some digging to see how much the AIO software phones home, but i don’t think anyone will actually care about that in the age of the Facebook.
Hardware-wise, this all runs on an Odroid-XU4, which does have a fan that you can occasionally hear spinning up, but it’s barely noticeable. By the way, you can also connect a mouse, keyboard and whatever else you desire to the front USB ports, and they work just fine, even within the touchscreen-optimized AIO software.
On the topic of the touchscreen, it does have good viewing angles, but it’s a bit too recessed to comfortably see and use especially the top edge at a normal stance.
Alright, scanning. So the ZEUS uses a laser + camera approach, so with the laser slightly offset from the camera’s position, it can reconstruct the surface by looking at how far the laser line is offset at any given point. But instead of rotating your scanned object, like many other simple scanners do, it actually pans the laser itself over your object, then rotates the platform, scans again, and so on. So instead of one continuous scan, it gets four to eight individual ones that it then stitches together. According to AIO Robotics, this gives far better resolution than just rotating the table, but in the scans i did, it performed only slightly better than conventional laser line scanners, giving you good dimensional accuracy overall, but you end up with a fairly mushy and low-detail scan, maybe picking up features around 1 to 2mm in size, which is far off from the advertised 150µm resolution. Even the sample scan they provide on their website, which looks much better than anything this machine ever produced, only comes with roughly 300µm triangles, so i’m not sure where that 150µm resolution is coming from. You also get visible seams, apparently where the areas from each individual scan meet, and extra geometry based on what seems to be guesswork anywhere the scanner didn’t perfectly reach. The large scanning area of 9 inches in diameter is noice, but unfortunately it’s not very tall at 4.4 inches max. That’s 23 by 11 cm for anyone not from the US. Anything that’s even remotely glossy will throw the scanner off, even if it’s just, like slightly metallic or shiny, it really needs to be completely matte, so you do have to give those objects a good wipe-down with the included powder brush. Also, it works best with white objects, anything that’s darker or, worst case, glossy black won’t get picked up at all.
AIO sorta see this quality of scanning useful for schools or pre-schools where you’d copy something like clay or play-doh models, and for that it’s probably well-suited when it comes to what sort of detail reproduction you get, but the issue of turnaround time still stands, where even with a compact part, a single scan, slice and print process can easily take over two or three hours, which may be slightly impractical for copying the work of more than one student.
For anything other than the simplest of objects, i honestely don’t see much use in the 3D scanner part of this machine, but that seems to be a common problem with this laser-plus-camera types of setup. So while the white Xbox 360 controller looks decent around the sides, with details like the data port and battery release picked up, the top shows some issues just from aligning those individual scans and the bottom is pretty much gone. There’s these extra bulbs around the handles and obviously mostly guessed geometry on the bottom. The angel scan and print has a few issues with the more constricted areas and, as expected, do lack detail overall.
For 3D printing the scanned models, you will need to enable all the extra helper features around your actual print, so whenever it came to “copying” something, i enabled raft, brim and support material, as the scanned files would often end up in mid-air with no contact and no adhesion to the bed. And those features obviously mean extra material use, print time, and effort for cleanup afterwards.
But you can of course also use the AIO Zeus as a pure 3D printer. And it does fairly well, even though there are a few questionable design decisions like the clothespin “belt tensioners”. It obviously uses the same area for printing as it does for scanning, and even the same build platform, which is not heated and requires you to lay down a fresh layer of gluestick before each print for optimum adhesion, and something like a sheet of buildtak would probably have prevented the ever-present slight amount of warp that i was seeing with more massive prints. The bed is locked down during a print to keep it from sliding around, and it uses a mechanically retracted probe to measure the bed and to compensate for any alignment issues, which seemed to work well. Though the machine doesn’t care if the bed is actually in there, it finishes the probing cycle and tries to start printing either way.
For the toolhead, you get a quick-swappable hybrid metal hotend, which you can get replacements for at $149 or in the convenient Makerbot-style three pack, though really, these shouldn’t ever need to be replaced unless you really abuse them. I got a spare toolhead with the review machine, which i needed, since the stock one seemed to be misaligned in such a way that the filament would end up with a considerable kink after each print, which meant removing, cutting and reinserting the filament each time. The hotend doesn’t seem to be super special, with this enormously long thermistor package sticking out the side, and there were a few occasion where the reported temperature dropped from the set 197°C to less than 190°, having the machine stop mid-print. The official solution from customer support was to simply turn off that safety feature, and basically have the machine ignore faults like this. Uhm, yeah.
On the topic of filament, you’re only going to be printing PLA with this machine, maybe a PET if you really want, and the 500g PLA spools from AIO robotics at a reasonable $13 each actually printed well, but so did other PLAs i tried, only having to adjust the temperatures and hitting print. The filament path is… interesting, passing from the filament chamber through a teflon tube over into the build chamber and then being left to itself before it enters the extruder, which, i mean, it works, but it’s not super elegant. On the extruder itself, you’re also going to find a filament odometer, which can detect if the filament runs out or stops feeding, but that functionality is disabled by default, even though it would be quite quite useful.
Some other things that are not put to use are these two switches that detect when the filament door or the main door are being opened. That smoked black acrylic hatch is supposed to stay open during prints to allow fresh air in and stay closed during scans to block out ambient light. You do have to slide it up in the exact right way or it’s going to jam. With the door open, 3D printing ends up quite noisy with not only the motors and their vibrations being very audible, but also the sheet metal parts rattling around. One of the prints does look like the printer might have skipped a step, but the resonance torture test doesn’t seem to be able to reproduce it. So overall, print quality is decent, and as a 3D printer, the ZEUS does a much better job than as a scanner. The quality doesn’t quite live up to the gold standards, as there’s some visible ringing due to the soft tensioning of the belts, as well as room for improvement with part cooling and overhangs.
So, let’s recap before we turn this into an unwatchable 30-minute beast of a video. Does the AIO Robotics ZEUS deliver on being a user-friendly 3D all-in-one machine? Sorta. I really like the interface and how streamlined it makes the scanning and printing process. However, i wish they focused a bit more on making it stable and reliable, but of course, that’s something future software updates might improve. The internet connectivity also feel a bit underutilized at the moment. As just a 3D printer, it works well, but is somewhat limited in material choices and part geometries due to the unheated bed and slightly sketchy way of adhering parts with gluestick. Also, i’d like to see things like the under-temperature issues fixed instead of just ignored and better use being made of the integrated sensors that are currently mostly disabled.
Now, the scanning part, to me, feels like a commitment on AIO’s side that they couldn’t fulfil to the level they originally wanted. Sure, it scans, it’s easy to use, but the scan results were all but usable for me. Maybe if you’re really only wanting to scan super-simply play-doh parts, it could be pretty useful for you, but for anything that requires an accurate reproduction of the geometry or has details you want scanned, forget about using this or even any other scanner that uses the same principle.
So is it worth its price tag of currently a bit over $2000? I’m not sure. If the scanning part seems useful to you, maybe. Or if you’re looking for that super-simple user experience in a 3D printer. For me personally, i feel like there are too many rough corners and unfinished bits to truly be able to universally recommend it, but i’m certainly interested in seeing what AIO Robotics come up with next.
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