Introduction and design
Lulzbot 3D printers are visually distinctive with their black steel metal frames and show of 3D printed parts. The inner workings are all on display and make the printer look like it’s been taken from some kind of science lab.
Actually that’s not too far from the truth as Aleph Objects, the company behind the Lulzbot line of printers, bases much of its products on the work done by the RepRap project, and propagates a very clear message that it works with the Free Software, Libre Innovation, and Open Source Hardware communities. This means that its hardware is accessible and you can update it as you see fit – at least if you have the skill.
This also means that the Lulzbot Mini is a refinement of all those open source projects, so while you are buying a commercial 3D printer you are also buying into the 3D community. Speaking of buying, the asking price for this 3D printer is £1620 (it’s pitched cheaper at $1350 over in the States, which is equivalent to AU$1815).
Fabricated steel sheet forms the basic shape of the printer and while this form of casing may be pretty primitive the quality of finish and weight of the material used gives the machine a reassuringly solid quality. Altogether the whole machine weighs in at 8.55kg, and this is just enough to keep vibrations caused by the stepper motors to a minimum while still ensuring that the printer is easy to move when needed.
The main power supply and control panel are hidden away in the main casing to one side of the unit, but the rest of the machine is open so all the print head and build area can be seen during the print process. This visibility of the print area is handy as you can easily get a good view of the print as it builds. The open design of some 3D printers is something that can raise concern, but as long as the printer is placed in a sensible position and people are warned that sticking their fingers into the workings isn’t a great idea, then this open frame approach doesn’t seem to affect the quality of the print in any way.
The Lulzbot Mini features a heated print bed that measures 15.2 x 15.2cm and will print to a height of 15.8cm, really not a bad size for a printer with the Mini designation.
The design of this print bed means that it moves along the y axis while the print head moves along the x and z axis. This print size compares well against the Ultimaker Go which features an unheated print bed at 12 x 12 x 11.5cm, and the more expensive Ultimaker 2 at 23 x 22.5 x 20.5cm for its heated build plate.
When it comes to loading 3D models you need to connect the Lulzbot Mini directly to a computer via a USB cable, and this connection must remain throughout the duration of the print.
Filament loading and swapping is relatively straightforward with the control panel in the Cura software used to heat the head, and then the spring-held filament clamp above the head can be released by hand and the filament removed and replaced. The process takes a couple of minutes just to wait for the head to heat but is far easier and less frustrating than many other printers including the Ultimaker 2.
Setup and printing
When removing the Mini from the box you’re instantly struck by the attention to detail, as hidden beneath the top metal structure is a printed 3D grip which just makes lifting and moving the printer easy. Like a car jack point this grip highlights where the printer can be lifted safely which seems sensible for a machine that is extremely complex and potentially easily damaged.
Packaging and octopus removed (like cereal there’s one in every packet, printed for your printer to check that it leaves the factory in full working order) it’s just a case of plugging into the mains, tethering to a computer and you’re almost ready to go. There are a couple of setup procedures, such as loading the Cura software, removing a short length of filament from the head and loading your own filament, but all this only takes a few minutes.
Lulzbot recommend that the first print you try is the Rocktopus which is a freely downloadable file from its website – once it’s downloaded you can then tweet your first 3D printed effort to the Lulzbot gallery. Again this reinforces the community feel that owning this printer instantly gives you. In the box alongside the printer is an easy to follow quick start guide along with a series of tools and some glue for the print base to help you get started. These tools also help you to maintain the printer in the future, a touch unmatched by other manufacturers.
The unboxing to print time is around twenty minutes depending on how focused you are and how long it takes you to download and install the Cura Lulzbot edition software. Once hardware and software are in place and connected by USB, the Cura software then needs to be configured. This is easy enough with a click-through setup process and decent set of instructions that quickly gets you to the point where you’re ready to start printing.
As mentioned, it’s suggested that you download and print the Rocktopus model for your first print and to test that the printer is working correctly. With the model loaded into Cura all you need to do is hit connect and then print. A whirl of the fan and a few minutes later the machine comes alive. This initial print takes around 50 minutes using the default settings, with a great result first time showing that everything was working as it should be. Once the Rocktopus is finished the knife included with the printer can be used to prize the model from the heated base. It’s worth leaving everything to cool down for 10 minutes so the extraction of the model is easier.
The Lulzbot Mini takes 3mm filament and in our testing we used PLA, ABS and HIPS which is the preferred material. Prints using all three types of plastic turned out well using a variety of settings. A nice touch in the software is the ability to have direct access to fine adjustment of the hot-end and print base temperature, as this can greatly affect the print quality and varies with each model.
Overall print quality was good with resolutions ranging from low, at 500 microns, to a respectful 50 microns (a micron being 0.001mm so this means a maximum resolution of 0.05mm layer height). Adjusting the settings improved the quality of the prints significantly and as always a little experimentation with the settings depending on the model being produced ensured that a good print is never too far away when using the Lulzbot Mini.
When comparing the quality of a print from the Lulzbot Mini with one from the Ultimaker Go you can see a difference in the fine detail of the print showing that the Ultimaker Go just has the edge. But the Ultimaker lacks versatility when it comes to supported materials and adjustment compared to the Lulzbot.
Cura is maintained by Ultimaker and for getting started is an excellent piece of visual software that enables you to quickly switch between quick and expert settings. To help you get started there are a variety of profiles that are directly downloadable from the Lulzbot website for different materials and qualities. These can be quickly loaded depending on your filament choice and the quality of print that you want.
If however you wish to use another piece of software to control your 3D printer then the Mini also has profiles ready to download for other common applications such as Slicer.
The Lulzbot Mini might initially make it look like it has been built in a shed, but the quality of finish and materials is excellent. There is nothing in the design and build of this machine that comes across as cheap or not fully thought through. The use of 3D printed parts gives the machine an air of confidence from the moment you start using it, and the open hardware design enables you to upgrade and tinker with the machine as you see fit.
The quality of prints is good and this is a great printer for creating and testing prototypes and models. The use of the Cura Lulzbot edition software is a great software choice and enables you to get set up and printing quickly with little or no fuss, and if you don’t like it then there’s always the ability to use something else.
USB printing is handy as you can communicate directly with the printer, however once the print process has started your computer is then locked into that location until the end of the print. An option for SD card printing would be welcome. Print quality is good but doesn’t quite have the refined detail of the Ultimaker series.
Lulzbot Mini is an exciting 3D printer – it has the confidence to use 3D printed parts which are integral to the design. It also has a good community of users and excellent written documentation and support. You can even download the plans and build one from scratch although it doesn’t really work out any cheaper than buying one pre-built.
Initial setup and configuration really couldn’t be easier enabling you to unbox and print in minutes. Print resolution at the highest setting couldn’t quite match the fine detail that can be achieved by the Ultimaker series, but then the Lulzbot Mini is cheaper than the base model Ultimaker Go.
The Lulzbot Mini is reliable and easy to use, and while it might not reach the print resolutions of the Ultimaker it is cheaper – and also, what will swing the decision for many is the open hardware design and compatibility with a wide range of filaments.