You get what you pay for.
With M3D's Micro 3D Printer, you get a well-made machine that's constrained in what it can make by its smaller-than-a-breadbox size but delivers average to above-average print quality. It sells for $349.
M3D was founded by Michael Armani, a researcher with a PhD in materials engineering, and David Jones, a software programmer and robotics engineer.
Armani and Jones set out to create what they called the first truly consumer 3D printer that is "intuitive, easy to own, and seamless by design."
The printer has a 1970s round-edged, cubical retro look. It comes in six colors including a bright orange, brash green, cool blue and, my favorite, transparent; it also comes in white and black. For some odd reason, the company charges an extra $25 for the transparent or white model.
You can also purchase the "retail edition," which comes with a one-year warranty (instead of the usual three months) and a spool of PLA print filament.
While small, inexpensive and downright adorable, this open-air printer is also rather slow. A 3-in. high model of an elephant took 5 hours and 47 minutes to print. A model of a 1.5-in. high, 4-in. diameter octopus took 3 hours and 50 minutes. And a 3-in. tall model of the Eiffel Tower took a painfully slow 6 hours to complete.
To date, the best fused filament fabrication 3D printer I'd tested was the Lulzbot Mini from Aleph Objects that retails for $1,350. With the LulzBot, the Eiffel Tower model took one hour and 44 minutes to complete, so you can see that the Micro 3D Printer is markedly slower than others.
If you're a first-time consumer in the 3D printer market, however, you're not likely buying a 3D printer for its speed. You're buying it because it's affordable. And, by nature, 3D printers are slow; if you want a significantly faster machine, you're going to have to shell out more money, a lot more money.
If you're lacking space (and a wad of money) this 3D printer is perfect for any beginner maker. The closest comparison to this machine is the $349 da Vinci Junior 1.0, which I reviewed earlier this year. That machine has a larger 5.9-in. square build area, but it failed rather spectacularly in fabricating anything intricate I attempted to print.
Like most other entry-level consumer 3D printers, setting up the M3D Micro is simple. From box to printing took me about 10 minutes. You remove it from the box, tear off the packaging material, remove some foam blocks and two plastic clips that hold the print head in place for shipping. Next, you plug in the power cable, a USB cable that connects to your computer, and then you download the management software for Windows or Mac computers from M3D's website.
I did run into a problem using the software, as its current version is six months old and can't be used with Apple's OS X Yosemite. But, the company offered me a just-released beta version that does work. Hopefully, that'll be in general release soon.
I also found the management software somewhat lackluster. While it wasn't difficult to navigate the controls, such as moving the X, Y or Z axis of a model or recalibrating the printer head, there were few ways to actually customize the model you print. You also can't inspect each layer of a model to ensure its print quality. When I hit "print," however, I was truly shocked.
While the cube is open on all four sides and the top, this is the quietest 3D printer I've ever reviewed; its print head mechanism literally whispers as it moves along the print bed.
About that print bed: One of the cool design elements of this machine is that the thermoplastic filament spool actually rests below the removable print bed in the base of the printer. It's a well-thought-out design feature. The print bed is also well designed. It's a perforated board covered in black tape. When it wears, as all printer beds do, you simply peel off the old tape cover and purchase a new one.
A small print bed
Obviously, a smaller printer is going to have a smaller object build area. The Micro 3D Printer machine's build volume is roughly 4 1/3-in. x 4 1/5-in. x 2 7/8-in. in size, and its upper build limit is just over three inches high. That's not a lot of room. However, as many models are printed in parts, it's possible to make large items by printing multiple pieces that can fit together.
Also, M3D's CAD software, like most others, allows you to scale up or down any .stl file you upload to it. So, you can take a 5-in tall model and shrink it to three inches, and it will still print with accuracy.
Some of the more typical objects I print to test machines had to be reduced in size using M3D's management software. It's a simple application that uses sliding scales on the X, Y, and Z axis's to increase or reduce an object's original size based on a percentage.
A 5-in tall model of the Eiffel Tower I typically use to demonstrate how well 3D printers can handle intricate details had to be reduced in size by 28% to fit the Micro 3D Printer's height limit. Shrinking the tower made an already intricate print job even more of a challenge, but the machine did pull it off (although the tower wasn't anywhere close to the best models I've printed before).
I was impressed that the Micro 3D Printer captured most of the tower's details, however; the only exception was a pedestrian walkway railing on the second tier of the tower.
I also downloaded an expansion set for gears, which consisted of two pivoting gear arms and a cog. That tested the printer's ability to make multiple model parts that would fit together; it did an above-average job precisely printing the spiny-edged gear and jointed arms.
Keeping in mind this is a "micro" 3D printer, the print bed is two to three inches smaller than most consumer machines. But it's still big enough to print a great deal of one-off objects or many pieces for larger objects.
The Micro 3D Printer has good resolution, meaning the thickness of each layer of thermoplastic material it lays down is thin enough to create a relatively smooth surface; you will feel "ribbing," but model surfaces are not course.
Depending on how fast you want to complete your print job, the layer thickness can be adjusted from 50 to 350 microns -- .002 to .013-in.
The M3D sells its thermoplastic print filament in 5-lb. spools of either polylactic acid (PLA) -- biodegradable thermoplastic -- or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS).
The printing filaments come in a two types: a standard PLA filament ($14 per spool) or a color changing PLA filament ($18) that M3D calls "Chameleon 3D Ink, which changes to a rich white color when exposed to specific temperatures ranging anywhere from a human touch to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
M3D also offers what it calls an "expert" line of ABS filament. While ABS tends to be stronger and more flexible than PLA, it is also smellier and doesn't adhere to print beds as well. PLA and ABS are the most common filaments used in 3D printing today.
The standard PLA filament comes in a dozen colors, from Deep Lemon and Light Caribbean Blue to Deep Mulberry and Light Fuchsia. Chameleon 3D Ink comes in 10 variations between 7 colors and 4 temperature modes.
When it came to the M3D management software, I was mostly pleased. While it doesn't have many sophisticated tools, the ones it does have, such as model scaling and auto calibration, perform well.
The one problem I had with the software was its print job time estimates. Most 3D printer software will offer you an estimate on how long a print job will take to run -- some are more accurate than others. I found with the Micro, it was relatively accurate on small jobs, but way off on larger prints. For example, the software estimated the Eiffel Tower would take two hours and 57 minutes to print; it took three times that.
One of the major drawbacks to this machine is that it has no onboard memory, meaning it's tethered to your computer via USB cable throughout a print job. As soon as you disconnect it, the print job will stop and you won't be able to resume it, even after reconnecting the cable.
This machine has no power switch. While that's not a huge deal, you will have to reach around to the back of the machine to plug in the power cord when you want to use it; that could be annoying if you back this machine up against a ball for space reasons.
Unlike many other consumer 3D printers, the Micro has no onboard LED screen or function menu. The machine must be controlled via the management software on your computer. While LED screens and function menus can be convenient, they're by no means a deal breaker. This printer has to be connected to your computer before a print job anyway, so I didn't find the lack of onboard controls a big deal.
Related to connectivity, however, I did find the provided USB cable too short: it's only three and a half feet long. I like a my cables to be at least five feet for more flexibility when printing on a desktop otherwise filled with computers, books and other obstructions.
Overall, the Micro 3D printer pleasantly surprised me. This is a machine that you can balance on one hand, easily pack to take with you and is an accurate model builder.
In the under $500 category, this machine is a winner that I can recommend it without reservation.
This story, "Review: M3D's Micro 3D Printer fits in a backpack, quiet as a mouse" was originally published by Computerworld.