The Ultimaker 3 is a dual extrusion 3D printer with some impressive innovations. It just has been awarded the prize: Best 3D Printer 2017. Read our detailed Ultimaker 3 review to learn more.
One of the most hotly anticipated 3D printers to emerge this year, the Ultimaker 3 boasts dual extrusion and a host of new connectivity features that make it more versatile than any previous generation.
Older Ultimakers have been known for their outright print quality, and early prints from the Ultimaker 3 show that the new machine maintains this reputation. We know that the engineers and developers at Ultimaker are perfectionists, so the print technology should be finely tuned. But as always, it’s not solely about print quality.
The big story here is dual extrusion, and what this extra capability enables us to do when it comes to 3D printing. How easy will the dual extrusion system be to use? What’s the impact on speed? How much more maintenance will two print heads require over one? And ultimately, is a dual extrusion printer really that much better? Read our Ultimaker 3 review and find out.
The Ultimaker 3 is a formidable machine, where the dual extrusion system capably lives up to the quality of its single extrusion predecessor. Build quality is solid, and performance and reliability are excellent. However, the dual extrusion does come at a cost when it comes to speed; think double, triple, or even quadruple print times.
And despite huge advancements in technology and design, there remain a few issues; the new print head and cores are excellent, but the reel holder despite featuring NFC is still hidden away around the back of the 3D printer. New support materials such as PVA can spit while they’re being extruded, but there’s no front screen to stop those filament flecks from going everywhere.
These niggles are small, however. And as dual extrusion systems go, the Ultimaker 3 blends quality and reliability well. If they could up the print speeds, then the Ultimaker 3 would truly be the ultimate all-round 3D-printer.
At first look, the Ultimaker 2 + and Ultimaker 3 look very similar, and both have basic specifications that are nearly identical. Using the 0.4mm nozzle on both machines will give you the option to produce a print of between 200 to 20 microns. The print area on the new model, meanwhile, is slightly reduced from 223 x 223 x 205 mm to 215 mm x 215 mm x 200 mm.
The filament reel holder and guide are very similar between both machines. Plus, if you look at the front of the Ultimaker 3 the toggle wheel to spin through the menus will be familiar sight to existing UM users. But aside from the similarities of design and print resolution, and despite sharing a few components, these two machines are very different.
The most obvious of the new features is the Dual Extrusion printhead. The extruder was a major and welcome upgrade on the Ultimaker 2+. It’s again been upgraded on the Ultimaker 3, but rather than one there are now two to handle the additional filament. This is fed by two bowden style extruders positioned on the back of the machine, and these feed up to the top of the printhead in much the same way as the single extruder Ultimaker 2+.
The print head is — as with previous Ultimakers — positioned on a mechanical rotating linear guides that move through the X and Y axis.
The print head is of an all-new design and features the new innovative print cores. These print cores can be quickly swapped out and replaced as needed like traditional print cartridges. Different cores enable you to print with different materials and nozzle sizes. They offer a far more refined way of controlling your print quality and material than unscrewing nozzles.
The Ultimaker 3 ships with three print cores; 2 X AA and 1 X BB. The AA cores are designed for standard materials such as PLA, ABS or Nylon, and come with a 0.4 mm nozzle built in. The nozzles on the print cores are not swappable or replaceable; if you want a larger or smaller nozzle then you’ll need to buy the full print core.
The BB cores are designed for the support material such as PVA, and although the print cores look identical they have a slightly different design to cope with the different characteristics of the support material. In the future, these print cores will be joined by others to offer additional functionality.
In normal use, the support material and core is assigned to printhead 2 and the structure material is assigned to printhead 1. On the back of the Ultimaker 3 the filament reels are set out to reflect this, with the support material positioned as the inner reel and the build filament as the outer. This is a sensible move, as the build material is the more likely of the two to be changed at regular intervals. If you want to produce a dual material then the support material and print core can be removed and the second AA print core installed.
The heated bed is of the vertical cantilever type connected to a lead screw. A nice new touch here is the smart Auto Bed Adjustment. This isn’t full auto bed leveling, but uses a sensor to determine the bed level and can then compensate with a small amount of adjustment as needed. In essence, this pads out the lower levels of the print to correct the upper build.
The 3D printer will also automatically detect when either of the cores or printhead need to be calibrated, and the printer features a new process with special charts and sheets for you to do this. The whole calibration process is far more refined than that of the old system and takes about 20 minutes. If more dramatic adjustment of the bed is needed, then the screws under the heated bed can be adjusted in the same way as those that appeared on the Ultimaker 2 and 2+ models.
Connectivity is another of the big advancements for the Ultimaker 3. The SD card slot on the front is gone and in its place is a standard USB slot. Models can now be loaded onto a USB stick and fed directly into the front of the machine. Once the stick is installed, the process of finding the model that you want to print is pretty much identical as before.
The small LCD has a few animation and visual updates, together with a great many features and adjustments, but essentially it all does much the same as the previous generation. Transferring files through hardware is all a bit old hat, especially as everything moves to the cloud, so the Ultimaker 3 now features WiFi. The Wifi enables you to connect to your computer to send prints directly from Cura or through the Ultimaker app. This in itself is impressive, but the whole Wifi system enables a great deal more.
The new reels feature an NFC chip which feeds back data and information about the filament to the Cura software. Cura will then adjust the print options for you to get the best quality print. Wifi also enables you to connect to the built-in camera so you can see how the print is progressing. This connection can be made either through Cura or through the new Ultimaker app.
The box for the Ultimaker 3 is about double the size of the machine. Unpacking, the first thing you uncover is the welcome box. This features a decent guide to help you get started, along with two test reels of PLA and PVA. There’s also the calibration chart and the print cores. Once the printer is removed from the box, setup can take as little as ten minutes, but running through the calibration steps can add an extra 25 minutes to the process.
The first stage is to attach the NFC lead to the port on the underside of the machine. This simply clicks in place and enables the Smart reels to talk to the Cura software later. The lead is attached to the reel holder and this in turn slots into the back of the machine. Once in place, there’s a small metal cover that clips over the lead making things neat.
The next stage is remove all the packing tape and ties, which takes about a minute. Then once that’s out of the way, you can then install the glass print platform which is held in place by two metal clips. For the initial setup that’s it, the printer can now be plugged into the power.
On first running, the Ultimaker 3 will take you through the setup process and you’ll be guided through how to install the print cores and then the filament. Essentially the print cores slot into place like any cartridge system. On the front of the print head is a plastic door that can be flipped down, and the cores are then slotted directly in. You then feed in the filament for core 2 and then core 1. Filament 1 also has a material guide which just helps avoid the filament from coming off the reel or getting tangled.
The process for installing the filament works in much the same way as the Ultimaker 2+, stick the end of the desired filament into the extruder and it’s slowly drawn into the machine. Once it has a firm grasp of the material, you can then click to confirm and the material is quickly fed around the system before entering the print core. Once it starts to ooze through the nozzle then the loading process is complete.
For the next stage, the Ultimaker 3 may alert you to calibrate the XY offset. This additional process takes about 20 minutes and prints a calibration chart on the glass plate. This calibration chart on the glass plate is then aligned with a paper chart, and the values are then adjusted through the dial on the front of the machine. The process is time consuming but pretty straightforward and seemed to do the job.
The final part of the setup process is to connect Cura software and Ultimaker app to the printer. Again the process is straightforward and once completed the printer will appear as a device on your home network. This means that you can browse the internet and connect to the Ultimaker 3 at the same time, rather than having to constantly switch wireless networks as you have to do with some other devices.
Ultimakers are instantly recognisable and really haven’t changed a great deal since the original incarnation. OK, these days the laser cut plywood is gone, but the same basic shape and design remains. Outwardly the design changes little, but there are a few superficial changes. The slight curve at the front has gone, and there’s an additional panel under the base to accommodate the new electronics. The front has altered slightly with the change from SD to USB. The back is a similar story, with the reel holder that accommodates both reels. And of course, there’s the two extruders.
Size-wise, the Ultimaker 3 is still a large machine. The standard version with bowden tubes and reels attached measures 342 x 505 x 588 mm and weighs 10.6 Kg. It will fit on a desk but it will dominate the space. Overall the build quality is excellent; there’s nothing flimsy or loose about the entire printer. Moreover, the weight and rigidity of the build shows that the main body of the Ultimaker 3 has been designed to last.
As with the previous printers, there’s a shout back to the open source roots where everything can be dismantled for servicing (or just pure curiosity). The linear bars remain at 6mm and the main drive bar at 8mm. This combination manages to keep vibrations through the machine to a minimum. When it comes to the cantilevered print platform, this uses a large lead screw for the vertical motion and is supported by two 10mm rods — again, keeping everything firm and steady.
The all-new print head really shows a shift in the quality of finish, and standing back from the machine you can now see a mix old and new design. Ultimaker has advanced in leaps and bounds with a technology and system that works, but the design feels a little left behind. The box design might have the weight and rigidity needed to enable the mechanics to produce good prints, but as Ultimaker and other 3D print manufacturers try to appeal to a wider audience, people may want a little bit more.
The printhead and cartridge system shows where the Ultimaker should be when it comes to product design, but in use there are several elements that really could be improved. Firstly the open front and top design; this is fine for the maker community, but as 3D printers become more mainstream there’s a need for these machines to be enclosed.
Ultimaker like to push the education angle for their printers, but if they’re to be used in an educational environment then a closed front is needed. In testing, the PVA support material crystallizes and spits during the print process. Because of the open front, those small crystals of PVA have a tendency to get everywhere. Then there’s the reels at the back. The extruders are excellent, but the reel holder just feels a little makeshift compared with the quality of the rest of the machine. Also, it still sticks out a good distance from the back of the machine.
The glass plate is another area that could be improved. More accurately, the two clips. They do their job but a small bit of rubber on the edge of the lever would help to prevent sore fingers when the plate is removed. These small elements of open face design, reel holders and glass plate release all feel like they have been left behind in the design stakes, especially when compared to the rest of the printer.
On the other side of design you have the new Smart Reels, Print Cores and software. The new print head is the biggest innovation and one of the best designs that we have yet seen for a 3D printer. There is the issue that you can’t change the nozzles yourself, but those new print cores simply ensure that you get the best possible performance from the machine.
The ability to hot swap those print cores and change materials is incredibly well thought out, and during the test proved to work well. Once the filaments are loaded, then having the filament reel information readily available in the Cura software is a huge leap forward and it really does help to improve your print experience.
Build quality of the Ultimaker 3 is one up on the Ultimaker 2+, and that’s down to the new printhead and some refinements across the rest of the machine. However we do feel that Ultimaker should really consider a way to close the front or even offer a door as a standard feature. The design hasn’t evolved a great deal, but then the major advance here is a dual extrusion system that works. Not only that, but it’s a system with full integrated Wifi, software and app.
Compared with the previous generation, the Ultimaker 3 offers an additional 20ºC temperature for the hot-end, with a maximum temperature of 280ºC through those new print cores. Although the amount of materials at present for this temperature range are limited, over the next year we’re bound to see some filament manufacturers starting to take advantage of that additional heat. Filament can be loaded in and out quickly, as can the individual print cores, in just a couple of minutes.
The print core loading is incredibly easy, however the way filament is loaded into the extruder through the back of the machine is exactly the same as the Ultimaker 2+. Although this system works, it isn’t refined, and as most users have their printers on a desk it means that every time a material is changed the printer has to be moved forward and rotated to access the reel and extruders. If you have plenty of space then it’s not too much of an issue, but if space is tight (especially for a home user) then this can be a bit of a problem.
Ultimaker do supply their printers with a locking plug on the power cable, which does help to avoid the cable coming loose as the printer is moved.
In use the printer handles a variety of filaments with ease, and the NFC reels make correct material selection incredibly easy. However, if you just want to use your own non-NFC enabled filament then this can be loaded in the usual way. You just have to select the type as you load the filament. Once the Ultimaker 3 knows what filament you’re using, it then feeds back the information through the WiFi for Cura.
Changing both materials can take time, as each has to be ejected separately. Depending on the materials the complete process to swap out and replace both reels can take up to ten minutes.
Cura is Ultimaker’s in-house slicing software, and recently it’s gone through a major redesign to coincide with the release of the Ultimaker 3. The new interface is clean and clear and completely tailored to use with the Ultimaker 3. It’s beautifully designed, and the engineers have spent time to create profiles for the Ultimaker filament. Testing these out produced superb results, and using these profiles over my own settings proved to be the best option.
From loading to sending the model to the printer, we found that the entire process is straightforward, and if you do want to play around with the settings then you can click through to the Custom tab and you’ll see an extended range of options to choose from. Once loaded, Cura will connect with the printer and makes use of the small built-in camera. So once the print process has begun, you can then tune in and see how your print is progressing. The small camera is just a monitor, so although handy it isn’t high resolution.
At the moment the software (and for that matter the app) work through your WiFi network; this means that the Ultimaker 3 can be positioned in another part of the building or home to where you work. At present this communication is only set between devices on the same network, so if you want to send a model through to the printer whilst you’re out, then this isn’t yet possible. But to have such a high level of WiFi integration is exceptional.
Looking at the first few 3D Benchy prints from the Ultimaker as a bench mark, the results show that the print quality from the Ultimaker 3 easily matches that of the Ultimaker 2+. Using the High-Quality setting of 0.06mm produces a print with minimal signs of layering. Stepping down to Low Quality at 0.15mm still produces a decent print, just with some of those layers showing.
When it comes to overall print performance with a single filament, there really is no difference between the Ultimaker 3 and Ultimaker 2+. But then this is to be expected as the Ultimaker 3 is really an expansion of the Ultimaker range rather than a straight upgrade.
The Ultimaker 3 is dual extrusion and it only takes a couple of prints to see the difference that using a purpose made support material can have on the quality and type of prints that you can produce. You can of course print supports with any 3D printer using the same material as the actual structure, but then you have the process of removing and cleaning the print afterward, and this rarely completely removes all traces of the supports.
Using a secondary material such as PVA which can be dissolved in water makes far more sense, and when left in water for a few hours will dissolve without leaving a trace. Starting out with using the dual materials is easy; just load the STL, select “add supports” and Cura will handle the rest for you, using your build material for the main print and the PVA as the support structure.
Once the print is finished, the whole thing can be placed into water and left for a few hours so that the PVA dissolves (or at least, that’s the idea). Initially, with the first print, we placed the model with PVA into a bowl and left it for a few hours and came back. The PVA was starting to soften but was still very much attached.
About eight hours later the PVA had finally melted around the model but was still attached and sticky. What was needed was for the print to be placed under running water; once this was done the PVA did finally wash away, and for further prints the cleaning process was far quicker and easier.
Using a fish tank water pump in the bowl seemed to do the trick and speed up the process greatly. Once all PVA was removed and the print dried the difference between a supported dual extrusion print and non supported print was instantly apparent.
Ultimaker have created a support system that creates a shelf of support under the main structure of the model. This means that the surfaces of the model and support meet to create a smooth surface that avoids any filament string that can be caused by unsupported structures. It also means that geometry and models that would normally be impossible to print are now possible.
After the first print and seeing the difference that the second material support structure makes to the quality of your prints, it’s easy to become a convert to dual extrusion. It really does make single extrusion systems start to look a little archaic. One of the greatest advantages of the Ultimaker 3 is that you can now finally design and print models as you want, without having to consider the effects of large overhangs. The support structure enables you to create and print complex geometries.
There is of course a drawback to this support and PVA. The material itself is expensive, at just over double the price per gram compared with Ultimakers own PLA or ABS. The other issue is time. Depending on the print you’re looking at double, tripling or even quadrupling the time for each print. The reason is the dual extrusion, as with each change of material the print cores are heated and cooled. A priming tower is created throughout the print to ensure that the start of each new layer is fresh and free from the previous material.
The priming tower and the way that the dual print cores work is fascinating. Take a look at the side of the print head just by print core 2 and you can see a small lever. This lever is used to raise and lower the second print core depending on the core being used, this raising and lowering of the core helps to avoid any cross contamination of materials. The system might seem incredibly simple, but in practice, it works well.
Dual extrusion is of course about printing dual materials and support structure is the most practical use, however if you want to print dual colour with the Ultimaker 3 then this is of course possible as well. The process of dual build material prints is slightly different to using the second print core for the support material. The process starts in Cura with two STL files. These need to be loaded into the software together and then you can assign the material or colour to each part of the model.
Then once your models have been assigned a material, the two can be merged by selecting both and right clicking and selecting Merge Models. If you then want to change the materials the models need to be ungrouped. Again, this can be done by right clicking and selecting the Ungroup option. Testing the dual color printing showed again that the Ultimaker 3 performs great, producing clean prints with the materials meeting and bonding well. At low quality, there was some gapping between the materials, but at higher quality, the bond was excellent.
What really stood out was the printer’s ability to sustain print quality despite the use of two filaments. The accuracy is comparable with a single filament print. The print produced also shows no signs of cross contamination between the two colors or materials, showing that the priming tower is doing its job.
Again, as with 3D printing the support structure, the times involved when printing two build materials are increased. There are however ways to reduce the print times by making the footing of the priming tower smaller. If you do this you do need to make sure that you are using a Brim or Raft, otherwise the priming tower will fall and you’ll be left with a stringy print.
The Ultimaker 3 is a high-end 3D printer which demonstrates that Ultimaker can produce a dual extrusion 3D printer that matches the quality of their tried and tested single extrusion system. Print quality is exceptional and the use of PVA support structure, once you get the hang of how to remove it, makes absolute sense. The biggest issue is that once you’ve started using a dual extrusion system, it’s really difficult to go back to single extrusion.
The hardware itself is solid and built to last, with the centerpiece being the printhead and cartridge-style print cores. As a dual extrusion 3D printer, they work perfectly, and the ability to hot-swap cores and materials has been exceptionally well thought out.
The Ultimaker 3 does feel like a meeting of two generations, however, with legacy elements such as the reel holders hidden away around the back and the small fiddly metal clips that secure the glass plate. These are mixed with that new print head, advanced Linux control board, and WiFi connectivity. There’s also the fact that this Ultimaker 3 really needs a door to help stop the PVA from spitting, but the issue is a small sacrifice to pay for a machine that prints at this quality.
There is also the issue of speed –the Ultimaker 3 is no sprinter. When it comes to producing quality prints, you can find that the print times double or even quadruple when compared to the same model printed with a single extruder on the Ultimaker 2.
But there’s no doubt that the Ultimaker 3 is an excellent printer and will find wide appeal. It’s one of the best printers we’ve used and the quality of the prints is outstanding.
Ultimaker have worked on the technology for the software, connectivity, mechanics and build an incredible dual extrusion system. Now if they can just tweak the position of those reels to make them more accessible, add a door to the front and speed up print times, it would make the Ultimaker 3 — for the moment at least — almost perfect.