The Ultimaker 2 desktop 3D printer for small businesses, artists, and hobbyists, is well-designed and simple, but not quite ready to outmuscle the big players.
The list of desktop 3D printer brands and models is seemingly endless at this point, especially if you include all of the crowdfunded models. Ultimaker is a Dutch company that is trying to challenge the Makerbot and Cubify. At CES 2015, Ultimaker launched two new 3D printers: the Ultimaker2Go, built to fit anywhere, and the Ultimaker 2 Extended, with a build volume almost four inches larger than the Ultimaker 2, and aimed even more at small businesses.
I'll always root for an underdog, and though it wasn't the smoothest machine, the Ultimaker 2 allowed me, a journalist with no engineering experience, to dip my toes into the complex world of 3D printing with relative ease.
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Dimensions: 14.1 x 13.5 x 15.3 inches
Build volume: 9.1 x 8.9 x 8.1 inches
Print speed: 30mm - 300mm/second
Software package: Cura
File types: STL/OBJ/DAE/AMF
Supports: Windows, Ubuntu Linux, Mac OS X
Connects with: USB, WiFi, SD card
Who is it for?
The Ultimaker 2 is for hobbyists, artists, and engineers who want to mess around with a sturdy, compact 3D printer. It's more suited for individuals or even small businesses who just need one printer, rather than a small fleet of different build sizes. And because its software is not as advanced as MakerBot's or 3D Systems' — but still simple to use and experiment with — it's a great option for the rookies out there.
What problems does it solve?
Ultimaker, which is based in the Netherlands, is a one of the newest players in the desktop 3D printing market. With its large build volume, the company geared the Ultimaker 2 toward business and artist applications — a smart move when most other companies are focused on making the smallest possible printers that can only print tiny objects.
Design - The UI for the Ultimaker 2 is extremely simple, and that makes it a great first desktop 3D printer. It's lightweight, well-lit, and quiet compared to the MakerBot Mini. The glass build plate makes for easier clean-up, but don't use the Staples glue stick included in the box to coat the plate before a print. It's supposed to make it easier to remove from the glass after the print, but the melted filament didn't adhere to it, became stuck on the extruder, and created a giant tangled mess of plastic. The Ultimaker also uses 2.85mm filaments (silver is included), which makes for a sturdier print, but that size isn't as readily available as 1.75mm filaments. The LCD screen on the front shows your options, and a dial controls the settings. It's very simple to stop a print using the dial — I know because we had to stop three of them.
Large build volume - The Ultimaker 2 has a build volume of 9.1 x 8.9 x 8.1 inches. If you're going to invest in a 3D printer for your business, you need that large plate. If you're basing everything solely on price, you could of course find a printer for $1,000 or less than this one — just know that it will only print 5-inch-tall items — as opposed to the 9-inch tall things you can print with the Ultimaker 2. Ultimaker is early in the game for the larger desktop 3D printers, and though they didn't do it seamlessly, I applaud them for marketing toward the enterprise. Realistically, that's what's next on the horizon.
Speed - For business use, this is key. The Ultimaker 2 has three speeds, which equate to "high quality print," "normal quality print," or "fast, low quality print." The fastest, up to 300mm/second, is noticeably faster than most desktop 3D printers, and if you're going to be printing multiple copies of small items for your business, like 3D logos, cell phone docks, cord spools, or other small items, this option would be the most accessible. On the "high quality" setting, it took two hours to print my iPhone 5S case, but the end product didn't need any work to make presentable. We also tried to print some smaller items, like a drum key, which should have taken 30 minutes, but it toppled over mid-print because it was top heavy, and we had to abort the mission.
Price - The price tag, $2500, is too high for a desktop 3D printer for individual use, but for businesses, biting that bullet makes sense. The Ultimaker 2 is less costly than other printers with build volume this large. But when compared to those, like the MakerBot Replicator or CubePro, which both offer more advanced software and better ecosystems in general, the extra couple hundred dollars for those models may be worth it. No matter the model you choose, paying this much for a desktop printer that will be vastly improved upon over the next few years is a risk in itself.
Software - Cura is Ultimaker's 3D software system. It's fairly easy to use if you're just dragging in a Thingiverse file to print directly, which was what I did the first time. From there, the file can be put on a USB, SD card, or set up to send over WiFi. I used the SD card included with the printer primarily, which was easy — all I had to do was pop in the card, scroll through the files, and hit print.
The problem comes when you want to get creative. Cura is not the most advanced software, so it's slow and incompatible with other 3D printer models. The actual interface of the software is confusing, because the scale, mirror, and rotate options don't feel precise. The 3D model can be dragged around the "bed," to start anywhere on the glass plate, but the screen isn't scaled either, so it's a bit of a guessing game the first time around. You can also upload your files on YouMagine, Ultimaker's open source file sharing site, but there isn't much available on there yet, so it's relatively pointless to take the time to do it.
Assembly - Out of the box, the Ultimaker seems easy to put together — it's almost completely assembled already. Despite that, it wasn't easy to get started. For one, the directions are unclear and jump around. I ended up putting the machine together basically by trial and error, plus a few quick Google searches. The printer comes with a few labeled pieces, one of which is a spool holder for the filament. Problem was, it didn't fit into the correct hole on the back of the printer. Ironically, my colleague Erin Carson and I spent 20 minutes shaving down the edge of the spool holder — a piece of cheap plastic we, in theory, could have 3D printed — with a pair of scissors so that it would fit into the correct hole.
- MakerBot Replicator, which has a build volume of 9.9 L x 7.8 W x 5.9 H, and runs at $2900.
- CubePro, which has a build volume of 11.2 x 10.6 x 9.06 inches, and runs at $2799.
Where to get more info:
- CES 2015: Ultimaker unveils mobile 3D printer and higher volume model for small business
- Ultimaker 2 3D Printer review (CNET)
Bottom line for business:
After assembling, experimenting, and printing with a desktop 3D printer for the first time, it really hit me how nascent this technology is, and that it's going to remain that way for a while. Most of the problems with the Ultimaker aren't specific to this brand — they're problems with 3D printing in general.
There's the fact that the extruder doesn't realize when it's off course and keeps printing a glob of hot plastic mess; the multitude of software programs that don't sync with one another well; the lack of standards that means if you buy one printer like the Ultimaker, you can't buy the filament you may want from another brand, and finally, the lack of overall usefulness. Unless you have something specific in mind that you want to print on a 3D printer, you should save your money for a couple of years until 3D printers have worked out the kinks and there are more useful things to do with it for your business.