It’s tough to decide what to look for in a 3D printer these days. The oldest machines use sturdy, reliable parts, but can feel intimidating to the beginner. 3D printers aimed at the mass market favor closed-off designs meant to make them simpler to use, but they usually don’t live up to that promise and become even bigger headaches to fix.
The Lulzbot Mini is the new mid-range ($1,350) 3D printer from Aleph Objects, which has traditionally made printers for relatively experienced users. The machine has the same stripped-down, industrial feel of early—and technologically challenging—desktop 3D printers. But over several months of testing it proved so reliable and easy to use that I am convinced it belongs in the mass-market printer category.
Unboxing a 3D printer for the first time can be scary. Did it break during shipping? Do you need to calibrate it? Where does this weird part go?
Luckily, the Lulzbot Mini comes with a thorough guide to getting started. A twig of filament—the spooled string of plastic that feeds into the printer—comes pre-loaded in the printer with directions on how to use it for a test print.
When that runs out and you move to an actual spool, which hangs from a bar at the top of the printer, the guide walks through how to pop open the print head and load in the fresh filament. Like much of the printer’s innards, the latch you pop open is made of 3D printed plastic. It feels a bit flimsy. But the filament loaded easily enough, and if the compartment ever breaks, Aleph provides the files to just 3D print a replacement part.
The Lulzbot Mini’s print bed is made from a plastic called polyetherimide (PEI) that requires no maintenance. Most 3D printers need to have their bed prepped with painters tape, glue or hairspray to ensure the printed plastic sticks. PEI adheres to plastic on its own and does not need to be cleaned between prints.
Once everything is set up, you load a model into the software and hit print. Then, that’s it. The Lulzbot Mini and its software take care of everything else.
The Lulzbot Mini runs a custom version of Cura—the open source 3D printing software produced by popular 3D printer maker Ultimaker. Those who have used other 3D printers will have an easy time with Cura, but users new to the machines will likely find it intimidating. That feeling quickly abates.
Cura opens with a 3D workspace. You load in a file the same way you would open a document in Microsoft Word. Short menus on the left side provide options such as print quality and filament type. Models can also be rotated and scaled. It’s not beautiful, but it is simple and intuitive.
My one gripe is that Cura doesn’t warn you of potential print errors. For example, a particularly steep overhang can cause the print to fail or have defects.
Once you hit print, Cura cuts up the file into the tiny layers the printer will print and spits out the code. All of this is done in the background, without any action required from the user. Then the intimidating window pops up. The print control window lets you do everything from move the print head by a few millimeters to giving direct, typed demands to the printer.
On an old RepRap—the open source 3D printers that helped to jumpstart the consumer 3D printer market—this window was necessary. You used all of the controls. The good news is on a Lulzbot Mini everything is automated. After you hit print, the printer just prints. Just put your hand over your screen and ignore all the complicated information, because you don’t have to use it.
But if you want to, you still can.
It Just Works
Once the printing gets underway, you can appreciate where the Lulzbot Mini really stands out. Before each print, the printer cleans its print head on a pad at the back of the print bed, which helps prevent clogs. The pad needs to be replaced every so often.
The print head also carefully touches down on each of the four corners of the print bed to ensure it is level. Traditionally, the head had to be lowered to the bed manually to ensure it started printing at the right level. Automatic leveling has become fairly standard on modern printers, and the Lulzbot Mini nailed it every single time. The head always made perfect contact with the bed.
That precision continues throughout the prints. While the Lulzbot Mini has the occasional hiccup on tough overhangs, its basic printing is remarkably reliable. I didn’t have a single print fail for no apparent reason—something that’s sadly common on other printers.
While printing with HIPS, the somewhat unusual plastic that Aleph recommends for printing on its machines, prints stuck to the PEI bed perfectly every time. And once the bed cools, they actually pop off on their own. You simply lift the printed model off and the bed is all set for the next print.
To sell such a nice printer at such a relatively low price, Aleph gave the Lulzbot Mini some clear handicaps. It does not print over WiFi or via an SD card. Instead, your computer must be tethered to it via a USB at all times. It’s inconvenient, and if you accidentally unplug the cord you have to start over.
The Mini also trades out Aleph’s higher-end TAZ 5 printer’s large print volume for one that measures 6 x 6 x 6 inches. That’s enough to print a cover for your mobile phone and lots of other trinkets, but limits its use for prototyping and other jobs that require large models.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Lulzbot Mini’s ease of use and reliability, which easily beat out any printer I have used in the past. Its low-maintenance nature erased many of the headaches I usually associate with 3D printing.
If you are interested in buying your first 3D printer (or second, or third), take note of the Lulzbot Mini. It may not look the friendliest, but it is. If only every desktop printer could be this trustworthy.