After backing the M3D Micro campaign on Kickstarter last year – one of the most successful ones ever to be launched with nearly 12.000 backers pledging around 3.4 million dollars – it has been a long wait and an even longer journey through 3D printing wonderland for me, most of which has been documented in this blog. When I decided to back the Micro, I did so mostly because of my very tight budget at the time – the $299 price tag was very attractive, even with an additional £120 factored in for shipping and import duties. Then the long wait began (the success of the campaign meant mounting delays and revised delivery schedules) and eventually the pressure of getting my PhD finished motivated me into diving into my savings and getting the UMO+ kit (which also took nearly 3 months to arrive from ordering – 3D printing is apparently for the patient). I have learnt a lot since then, and clocked up many hours reading forums, adjusting Cura settings and tweaking models to get that perfect print out of my UM.
So when I finally got the email to say that my Micro was ready to be shipped out in June, I was excited to scale up my operations with the addition of the tiny blue cube, but also wondering if I still really needed it now that I was churning out top quality prints in all sorts of materials with my UM. But then I saw the Mini Micro!!! I think I had not initially realised quite how tiny it would be, so when the box arrived (including some extra rolls of filament) I was quite taken aback both by its size and weight. This little printer has to put a new meaning to the phrase ‘portable’ – with a slick little body injection-moulded out of thermoplastic (available in blue, green, orange, black and silver I think), and the potential for an internal spool and filament path (I prefer to mount mine externally on the back to see what’s going on) this is the perfect printer to take on holiday, your mum’s house, college, your nearest Makerspace…anywhere really. While I know of a few people who claim the UM to be very portable, and who do take it along to events, I would never consider that as an option – even the UP! felt heavy to me when I lugged it around Dundee for an event, and that is a lot smaller than an UM. The Micro however, would be very easy to take anywhere – it weighs next to nothing and there are very few external parts to contend with. Box it up, stick it in your handbag, off you go! It is also very easy to move around different rooms of the house – as I type this, it is sitting next to me on the arm of my sofa, printing away happily and reasonably quietly. It looks and feels almost like a toy – a very advanced toy, but a toy nevertheless.
Now for the more technical aspects of the Micro. Its design reminds me a lot of the Rapman – a Z axis in each corner, with a central double y axis supporting the printhead and sliding along two x axes. All axes are direct drive, with the Y axes being rotated by a long metal rod connected to a motor and a double belt system (the belts look tiny and somewhat vulnerable). The platform is static and unheated, which will make printing ABS practically impossible if my experiences with the UM are anything to go by. Printing PLA seems to work like a charm, and I have had no problems with platform adhesion so far. The extruder is of the direct drive variety, and I can hear the small fan inside the enclosure whirring away busily when it’s printing – there are no external fans like on the UM. The extruder has an automatic filament drive, with a shielded bowden tube connecting to the internal spool holder (located underneath the printbed), and a tiny hole for feeding in filament externally. The Micro takes 1.75mm filament – handy for me, as it will now allow me to use any filament in my setup, and I love that they have enabled their customers to use ANY filament rather than just the one sold by them. The trend of companies and re-sellers trying to push the proprietary filament model is worrying and needs to be opposed vehemently by consumers. Altogether, I really like the way the printer looks and its handy size, but of course the proof will be in the pudding and the prints it manages to turn out.
So far on that front my experiences have been mixed. When I first got the UM, trying to print my Cocoon shape was a nightmare, figuring out the settings, raft, temperature, z-hop, retraction and speed. However, slowly but surely I was starting to get great results, with the help from many people on the UM forum and by trial and error. The Micro is far more consumer oriented than the UM – it comes with its own proprietary software, which uses the Cura engine to slice the model and then a spooler to translate the Gcode to the printer. It is meant to be truly Plug-and-Play – upload your model into the software, drop it on the virtual platform, choose from a few quality and infill settings, tell the printer what filament you’re using (the M3D filament even has a ‘cheat code’ with preset optimum temperatures) and press print. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, especially if you manage to find a setting that gets good results with your model. And I think the average user, who wants to download and print something from Thingiverse or Youmagine, will find that the Micro produces very decent prints. But I am already getting the feeling (and the jury’s still out – so far I have only printed two models on the Micro) that this printer would be capable of so much more in terms of speed and quality if there was an option to tweak the setting in Cura and then send the file directly to the printer, or if the proprietary software had many more adjustment options. I really hope that in the future this will be possible – the original Kickstarter campaign promised open-source software compatibility, and for me this is an important aspect of optimising print quality. Another tiny bugbear is the fact that is needs to be plugged into my computer at all times – quite annoying on longer prints, and not as handy as having an SD card to save models on, although I think opinions are generally divided on this matter.
Altogether I am pleased with my pledge – for a product to arrive on my doorstep at all is quite good, considering the many failed Kickstarter campaigns out there. I can see this printer producing good results with simple models as it is, and coming in really handy for taking to workshops because of its size. Whether it will eventually be able to match the fantastic quality of my UM remains to be seen – watch this space! Would I back it again, knowing everything I know now and with the market having moved on considerably in the last year to give us affordable, high-quality printers like the Printrbot Play? Who knows – we’ll see how capable and handy it is in the next few months, and whether its great portability outweighs other drawbacks. For now I am really enjoying my tiny blue cube…