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3D printing hands on: Getting to know the LulzBot Mini multi-filament printer

In this installment of our 3D Printing Discovery Series, we welcome a new printer to the shop. Join David Gewirtz in getting to know the LulzBot Mini 3D printer, a printer that's capable of printing many different types of materials.

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The LulzBot Mini

You can tell how vibrant and explosive the 3D printing market is by the number and variety of 3D printers being introduced almost constantly. While there are many different attributes being touted by different vendors, two that most manufacturers hope will lead them to mass adoption are price and ease-of-use.

Of these two factors, price is the easiest to define. What does it cost to buy a 3D printer? We've seen printers hit the market for as little as $199, but those seem to be one-time manufacturing runs. Probably because of either reliability or profitability issues, the most inexpensive printers tend to go out of stock (and never return) very quickly.

Ease-of-use is a completely different vector and it really depends on how vendors think users will use printers. Some vendors seem to think that the market opportunity is for printer buyers who will then go to an online store, download designs, and print them out. Others think ease-of-use is simply providing a product that doesn't have to be assembled screw-and-nut by screw-and-nut.

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As I've explored 3D printer use, I've come to understand that the number of factors is far more broad than the two outlined above. For example, some printers let you print bigger objects, some are limited to smaller ones. Some printers will let you print in a wide variety of materials, while others are limited to just a few. Some printers require calibration completely by hand, while others make the process fully automatic.

You get the idea. There are lots and lots of differences as both the technology and the market evolves.

From our point of view, here in the DIY-IT 3D Printer Discovery Series, our direction of study and discovery is also evolving. In the first months of this series, we sought to simply get hands on with 3D printing. What is it? How does it work? Can we make anything? What's involved?

Together we explored and attempted to answer all of these questions. At the core of our series was the 3D printer supplied by the awesome folks at MakerBot: the Replicator 5th Generation.

The Replicator 5th Generation is a heck of a printer. It has a large print bed, a camera that lets you watch the printing process even when you're out and about, smart alerts when prints run into problems, and a lot more. At $2,499 it's a mid-range printer ideal for schools, small businesses, and departmental offices.

We will continue to use the Replicator actively in our 3D Printing Discovery Series, but it's time to branch out and also look at other printers. Some do less and cost less. Some do a few more things, but require a lot more tinkering.

We'll also look at the wide range of filaments out there, which allow makers to build objects with many different physical characteristics, and which can solve many different types of problems.

Kicking off our expanded discovery of 3D printing is the LulzBot Mini provided to us by Aleph Objects. The LulzBot Mini is a very different printer from the MakerBot and has some advantages and some disadvantages.

The single biggest advantage is the LulzBot Mini is far more flexible in terms of filaments than the MakerBot. The MakerBot is limited to PLA (polyactic acid). PLA is a great material. It's biodegradable, is non-toxic, and has a pleasant smell. But it's far from the only material out there.

The LulzBot Mini can print in just about any filament type there is. The company was kind enough to send me a wood filament, nylon, and a variety of plastics. I also have ABS and PLA to print in it as well. We will definitely be exploring the differences in filaments as we move forward.

As its name implies, the LulzBot Mini has a smaller print bed than the Replicator, which limits the size of objects that can be printed. It's also considerably less expensive, retailing for $1,250, almost exactly half the price of the Replicator.

You do sacrifice some features for that price, although the LulzBot Mini adds fully automatic bed leveling and calibration, a feature not available in the MakerBot. The MakerBot does assisted leveling, so all you have to do is turn a knob until a light turns on, but it's still one extra step.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the two machines is that the LulzBot Mini requires the use of a dedicated computer to drive it. When using the MakerBot, all I had to do was send a file to the printer. It did all the print processing.

With the LulzBot, you have to keep a computer connected to the printer for every single movement of the print head. Given that prints can run for hours and even days (my longest print so far was 40 hours), it's not practical to hook up your main laptop and let it run the print.

In fact, it took me a few days to get started with the LulzBot because I had to dig up and then update an old Dell netbook we had sitting around. While that worked, my plan is to use this as an excuse to get a Raspberry Pi, and install some specialized printer control software on it. That will be a project for a future week.

Overall, I'm very impressed with the LulzBot Mini, and can't wait to start tinkering with new filaments.

First print from LulzBot Mini

The first print from LulzBot Mini had very nice quality and resolution

Speaking of tinkering, it should be noted that the LulzBot is a completely open source product. MakerBot began that way, but made some business decisions leading it away from an open source solution. The company was able to create some advanced technology that it was able to share from its parent company that might never made it into its printers otherwise.

On the other hand, LulzBot's entire set of design plans are online. Many of the parts inside the LulzBot Mini are themselves 3D printed, so you're able to mod, update, and replace parts just by printing them yourself. It's definitely not for the non-techies among us, but for us tinkerers and makers, it's definitely cool.

Stay tuned. We've got a lot more learning, exploring, and discovering to come.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.