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What happens when you have to improve an already great 3D printer? Ultimaker 3 happens!

It’s time to look at the Ultimaker 3. With big new features like dual-extrusion, WiFi integration and smart filament spools, it sounds like it’s a big leap forward not just for Ultimaker, but for 3D printing in general. Let’s check out how how it performs.

Expectations

And it’s a really interesting time for 3D printing. Having a machine work out of the box is something you can expect for any half-decent 3D printer at this point, and while print quality still varies quite a bit, compared to just two or three years ago, the bar has been significantly raised when it comes to what is deemed acceptable. So right now, the core functionality is much more just a given fact, and manufacturers can start looking into adding features that make their machines easier to use, more reliable and focus on expanding what they can do. And Ultimaker have definitely realized this as well. Because if you look at the Ultimaker 3, there’s really not much of a difference to the Ultimaker 2 or 2+ on first sight. It’s still using the same mechanical setup with the rotating linear guides up top, the cantilevered bed setup, spools on the back, using the same extruders from the Ultimaker 2+, but obviously, there’s two instead of one now, and the same OLED screen and clickwheel up front. Which doesn’t flicker at all to the naked eye, but it still feels super tiny and cramped and all the animations do look cool, but don’t help when you just want to blaze through the menus to find that one thing you wanted to get to. The build area of the Ultimaker 3 stayed almost identical at 215 by 215mm and a 200 or 300mm build height, depending on whether you get the regular or the extended Ultimaker 3.

What’s changed is that, instead of the SD card slot to store print files, you get a USB port and built-in WiFi that’s actually really neatly integrated into the Cura slicer and the Ultimaker 3 app, and also makes use of a built-in camera for monitoring your prints. The other huge difference is the new printhead, which now holds a pair of these quick-swappable printcores and comes with a really smart auto-bed-adjustment sensor. Oh, and the front plate changed and got rid of the curved cutout and instead uses a more angular shape.

Performance

But the important question is: does it still work? Hell yeah.  I mean, what did you expect? I guess Ultimaker really didn’t have headroom to improve their print quality much, since the Ultimaker 2+ already prints amazingly well, and the Ultimaker 3 still manages to output reference-level prints. The default layer height in Cura is 0.1mm, which most other machines already consider “superfine”, but the Ultimaker 3 comes with an even finer profile using 0.06mm layer heights. Of course, you can go lower than that and in the times of some companies advertising 10 or 20µ layer heights, 60µ really doesn’t sound too impressive, but to be honest, you’re practically never going to need a lower layer height than that. I printed most things on the 0.15mm “fast print” or even the 0.2mm “draft print” options, as those are still, really, good enough, and just print so much quicker. But when you do need that extra quality, 60µ layers do look glorious. So my typical workflow with the Ultimaker 3 looks somethings like this: Starting in Cura, you drop in your models, pick a layer height and density setting from hollow to solid, pick if you want support material and hit go – that will send the print file to the Ultimaker 3 via WiFi, or Ethernet, if you prefer that, and the machine will just get to work on its own. The built-in camera isn’t crisp enough to really judge the quality of the print, but it’s just fine to check if the print has run into any roadblocks. Currently you get a fresh image from that camera every few seconds in Cura, and a smooth video feed in the app, but Cura is already being updated to show that same video feed. Once the print is done, you remove it, confirm the printer is ready to go again, and that’s it! Even though i did have a few occasions where Cura stopped seeing the printer and I had to do the initial connection setup again, I really like the way that the networking functionality is implemented and built-in with Cura. One other neat thing the printer does is to tell Cura about which materials are loaded at the very moment and Cura will simply pick the right print settings for those. Of course, you can still go in yourself and tweak every single setting, of which there are a ton, but for the most part, you don’t have to, which i really like. And what plays a big role here are the smart filament spools that you can get from Ultimaker – which come with an NFC tag built-in that tells the printer which material, color and as i can tell, how much of it is on the spool. Again, really comfortable and easy to use, during a filament swap the printer reads that NFC tag and stores the filament’s info. No input from you required. But of course, since the Ultimaker filament is fairly expensive, you might want to use a different brand with “dumb” spools, and you can do that just as easily, the Ultimaker 3 will simply ask you which filament you’re loading and it will show up in Cura just the same. The only difference is that you’ll only see a preview of the filament’s color if you’re using Ultimaker’s smart spools, everything else works just the same. Swapping out filament generally is a well-assisted process, but i’d prefer it to be a bit more manual, since the process of swapping out both spools with each printcore heating and cooling can overall take you ten minutes or more if you’re unlucky.

Dual Extrusion

So obviously, dual extrusion is a big selling point here and the Ultimaker 3 does a great job at it. You can use dual-extrusion in a few different ways: Either print a model using two different colors, which I don’t care that much about, but I tried it and there you go. There’s a bit of squeezeout, as it looks like, where the two colors sit on top of each other, but it’s a really clean print without the usual issues of one color being contaminated with bits of the other. You could also combine two different material types, like printing a flexible shell over a rigid ABS core or using wood-based filament as accents in clean, glossy parts. In either case, you load the two models into Cura, select the filament and print settings for each one and then combine them into a single… entity so that Cura will let them overlap. Done. While dual-extrusion using two different stl files doesn’t feel too elegant yet, i think the way Cura handles it is pretty flawless.

However, what i think is the best use case for the dual-extruder setup is water-soluble support material. The Ultimaker 3 comes with a small spool of PVA, a water-soluble plastic that you can use to support certain details of your print that would be impossible to print otherwise. And while you can use the same filament as for the actual part, which is an option every printer has, that’s usually a pain to clean up and doesn’t even give the best results quality-wise. With the separate water-soluble material, the idea is that the printer will use that to support the print and when it’s done, you simply dunk it in a bucket of lukewarm water and the PVA dissolves, leaving a perfect print behind. And PVA does make a huge difference as to what geometries you can print, and leaves behind a surface finish on those supported areas that is as good as any other bit of the print. And the best part is, you only need a single stl file and the supports are automatically generated where needed. But there are two downsides aside from the PVA being really expensive: One, print times go up drastically as soon as the print uses that second material for support, since the machine will heat and cool each printcore on every switchover, prints a priming tower in the corner of the bed and, well, there’s simply more material to print. So depending on the exact geometry, each supported print is going to take twice or up to four times as long as the the same thing unsupported. Add this on top of the already lengthy print times at lower layer heights and you’ll easily end up with prints that take over 24 hours or even multiple days. To be honest, when you’re not running your printer 24/7 anyways, it’s probably not that big of a deal, but if you need time-critical parts, you’re often better off modelling support material for the print by hand or settling for a lower-resolution print. Though what also plays into that time factor is how easily the PVA actually dissolves in water. Sometimes you’ll be lucky and have the PVA peel straight off, other times you do have to soak it in water for many, many hours for it to become gooey at first and eventually dissolve completely. Without manual work or a pump that just circulates the water, it’s easily going to take a few days for the PVA to completely dissolve, if you are using a pump or an ultrasonic cleaning bath – or even wash and peel it off under running warm water, you can get rid of the support material within an hour or two. So my guess is that Ultimaker’s own timelapses in standing water easily took a few days for the PVA to dissolve completely. That might not come as a surprise to you, but I was sorta expecting this stuff to be much more easily dissolved. On the upside though, as Ultimaker simply has the spool in open air on the back of the printer, they are using a type of PVA that won’t absorb moisture from the air as easily, which would usually render PVA unprintable, but this one has been holding up well for the last few weeks in open air.

Is it ready?

Now, there was a bit of a controversy around the launch of the Ultimaker 3, supposedly there would be review units sent out at launch, but the reviewers required not to publish their review until some time in early 2017. Ultimaker later corrected that and stated they simply didn’t have any machines left over to send out as review sample as they were selling every single one they produced. I got this one the week before Christmas, which would line with not enough machines being available. But as it turns out, even weeks after the launch, there are still quite a few rough spots – of course, there are plenty of software updates, but it still feels like the programmers and and engineers were working towards a very rigid deadline. Not to discredit their work, it’s still an awesome package, but specifically features like the camera slideshow in Cura, which is already fixed in a beta version, the extremely basic app, which lets you run a print without ever touching a computer, but it just open your browser for you to download an stl from Youmagine, and the originally not-so-reliable active leveling feature, which has already been fixed, all feel like they just needed a bit extra time to get perfect. I mean, the first machines even shipped with 3D printed spool holders, which each took a full day to print on early Ultimaker 3s. Not that the spool holder design is particularly great, as it’s this multi-part assembly on the back of the printer and basically impossible to use unless you rotate the printer every time you want to swap a filament spool. I mean, couldn’t they have figured out some other place for the spools that, maybe, was a bit more accessible?

Toolhead changes

Whatever. Anyways, one spot i still want to touch on is the new toolhead, which just looks so much more professional than the old ones. So you’ve got two of these Printcores in here, essentially, you’d call them a “hotend” in any other machine, and you get two of the AA type, and one BB. The AA are general-purpose Printcores, which you can use for PLA, ABS, copolyesters, nylons, flexible, you name it, while the single included BB is optimized for the PVA support material. So when you want to use, say two PLAs with a different color, you swap in that second AA core, and for PVA-supported prints, you use one AA for your build material and the BB for PVA. Swapping them is super easy, there is a menu option to guide you through the process, but for the most part, pulling one out, plopping the next one in is a matter of seconds because the printer pulls out the filament far enough anyways when it’s done using each material. The right hotend swivels up and down when the printer swipes this little tab on the side, so that either the left or the right hotend are out of the way and don’t ooze their plastic onto the print.

So the bed sensor is also integrated in the toolhead, it’s this inconspicuous little PCB down here, and the way it works is pretty cool. Instead of triggering at a set distance from the printbed like a normal sensor setup, which would mean having to set and calibrate some sort of offset to the actual nozzle tip, the software looks for the point when the hotend physically touches down onto the bed and starts compressing the bed springs, and that’s the point when the precise distance measured by the sensor stops changing. With the current iteration of the firmware, that works extremely well as long as the nozzles are clean, and makes for repeatable and reliable first layers. And instead of tilting the entire print to match up with the tilt of the print surface, it instead compensates with the thickness of the first few layers, which means that the upper part of the print will be printed with the nozzle perfectly perpendicular instead of slightly tilted throughout the print, which is important with those super-low layer heights. And while the bed still has those manual adjustment points, and you can totally turn off active bed leveling and solely rely on the mechanical adjustment, you can also go the other way and just eyeball the mechanical adjustment and let active leveling do the rest. Which is what i did, and it works perfectly fine.

All this is being driven by a good old Arduino-based board, but it is assisted by a full-blown Linux board, which runs the WiFi functionality and things like the USB port, camera and OLED display. This means the printer does take a bit longer to start up, but once it’s there, it’s ready to rock.

Worth it?

So is the Ultimaker 3 a worthy successor to the Ultimaker 2+? No, because it’s not a successor, and at 35 hundred money units or 42 hundred for the taller Extended model, it shouldn’t be. The Ultimaker 2+ is going to stay as a fully supported base model, with single extrusion and a few bells and whistles less. Though the Ultimaker 3 really is a machine that i don’t have a lot to complain about, which, if you know me, is quite an endorsement. It’s almost exactly what I think a 3D printer should feel like today. Easy to use and hard to throw off track, but still flexible and open enough if you want to go in and for example dig through the extensive set of options you get with the Cura 2 software. By the way, Cura 2 turned out to be an awesome slicer after the initial miscommunication when it was first announced. Daid Braam et al. definitely made Cura great again. The rest of the Ultimaker 3 ecosystem makes sense, too. If you want to have that single-supplier guarantee of everything working together, you can use Ultimaker’s own filament with it, or if you want to experiment or save some cash on materials, use your own filaments. The only thing that’s still a bit harder to do with the Ultimaker 3 is modifying the machine itself, since UItimaker are not releasing the printer’s design files until 12 months after launch, so at this point, the Ultimaker 3 and the printcores in particular are not open source hardware, even if it’s advertised that way.

But nonetheless, I think the Ultimaker 3 as a whole and many of its details and features are something other manufacturers could definitely learn from. As it stands, it’s a great high-end 3D printer in almost every way, I feel like it’s a good advancement for 3D printing in the right direction, and if we get those last few kinks ironed out with future software updates, it’s straight in line for a “Tom approves badge”.

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