Dec 15 2016
The Zeus has the potential to be your own personal 3D copier, but don't expect perfect results straight out of the box.
Star Trek has a lot to answer for: ever since the birth of 3D printing we've struggled to overcome the gulf of expectation between what the technology can potentially deliver – a Star Trek-style replicator in your kitchen – and the realistic results you can expect to achieve at home with a consumer-grade printer spitting out plastic.
Around this time last year I reviewed XYZprinting's da Vinci Jr budget 3D printer, but even at AU$600 it's a disappointment because it makes so many compromises while locking you into its own brand of plastic spools – it's worth a re-read to recap on the hassles I had with it.
The AIO Robotics Zeus is not only a step up in build quality and price at around AU$4500, it's also a step up in features as it includes a built-in "optical triangulation" 3D scanner so you can copy and print small objects. You can drive the printer using the 7-inch touchscreen, or you can control it from a computer, smartphone or tablet.
Fit to print
From a printing perspective you can immediately see the Zeus' improvement in build quality compared to the da Vinci Jr. For starters, the extruder (the equivalent of a printhead) is easy to remove for cleaning and unclogging. Thankfully the arm that holds the extruder is fixed securely so it can't wobble up and down.
The Zeus also automatically calibrates the corners of the printbed to ensure that it's level, and compensate if it's not, which is key if you're concerned about accuracy. It can print objects up to 15cm tall, with a 20 x 15cm base – offering a choice of seven resolutions (layer heights) ranging from 0.08 mm up to 0.32 mm. While thinner layers let you print in more detail, thicker layers offer greater strength.
You can only print in one colour at a time, but it's relatively easy to switch colours when you're printing different parts.
The printer relies on 1.75mm PLA (Polylactic acid) plastic filament and thankfully you can use any brand of plastic spool, but AIO Robotics' local distributor recommends using Tangle Free precision wound filament in order to get the best results (you're up for US$60 per spool). I'm told that poorly would filament can have an impact on the end result.
The printer doesn't support ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic. It's more difficult to work with and can smell bad, but in return ABS allows for more precise prints and tends to be favoured by people looking to print components rather than just models and trinkets.
A PVC-based filament was also recently released for the Zeus, which requires a special extruder, but I haven't had the chance to test it.
Unfortunately, just like the da Vinci Jr, the Zeus also lacks a heated printbed – which is one of the reasons why neither can print with ABS plastics.
A heated printbed would assist when printing delicate objects. When printing fine objects on the Zeus it can help to run a glue stick over the printbed before you start, to ensure the first layer of plastic stays in place.
If your print breaks free from the printbed then your 3D model is doomed to fail, although you might not discover the problem until hours later when you return to find a ugly ball of plastic string in place of of your 3D model.
Removing your models
The lack of a heated printbed also makes make it more difficult to remove objects once they've cooled. You're in danger of damaging both your prints and yourself as you struggle to pry them free.
The da Vinci Jr comes with a paint scraper and demands a dangerous amount of force in order to remove objects. Meanwhile the Zeus comes with a custom-made rack in Australia for holding the printbed while you remove your creations, along with special Flexible Filling blades which you can slide under your model to remove it without damaging it.
You still need to apply reasonable force to these blades but this set-up all but eliminates the chances of taking a chunk out of your model or your hand. The thin blades are a little like the ones which magicians slide into boxes to supposedly slice people into sections before they emerge unharmed.
The quest for accuracy
While the Zeus is definitely a better starting point than the da Vinci Jr when it comes to 3D printing at home, don't expect it to be all smooth sailing.
Successfully consumer-grade 3D printing is still a dark art and it takes a lot of trial and error in terms of prepping the print bed, adjusting the printer's advanced settings, tweaking your print files and working with different kinds of plastic. I found the Zeus' printbed calibration helped reduce the problem of items breaking free from the printbed in the early stages of the print – especially when you're printing a number of items spread across the printbed.
The fact that the Zeus is a full-blown Linux PC under the bonnet grants you a lot of onboard options not found on budget 3D printers, such as the ability to store, edit and duplicate models via the touchscreen as well as slice them in preparation for printing.
If you're feeling confident you can design your own objects to print and you'll find a range of free 3D design tools like Tinkercad and Google SketchUp. This introduces a whole new level of complexity, I haven't gone down this path yet and thought it best to master printing other people's models first – but even here you can still run into trouble.
The Zeus has built-in Ethernet and Wi-Fi, letting it connect to the Thingiverse online repository of 3D printable objects, plus you can manually load designs with support for industry standard STL, PLY and G-Code files.
A recent firmware update for the Zeus added the ability to program pauses into a print so you can insert objects into your models such as metallic bearings, fittings, capture nuts and threaded rods.
Unfortunately you still can't trust all these Thingiverse files to print perfectly, especially if they're intricate pieces designed to fit together. The planetary gears I downloaded from Thingiverse and printed with the Zeus wouldn't fit together correctly, just like with the da Vinci Jr.
Exactly where the fault lies is hard to say, but the arduous troubleshooting process is a timely reminder that home 3D printing is still far from point 'n' click simple. The Zeus' onboard editing tools can help, letting your resize objects and experiment with different options.
Time to scan
You might not be too concerned about working with 3D print files when the Zeus can simply copy and print any object – if it only it was that simple. Once again you'll need to invest a lot of time and effort into the Zeus before you see decent results, perhaps exporting your scans, tweaking them in third-party software and then loading them back into the printer.
The Zeus' scan area is a cylinder measuring 22 cm in diameter and 11 cm tall, with the printbed turning several times during the scan so the laser can measure the object from every side. You can watch through the printer's window and monitor the progress on the touchscreen.
As you can see, my early efforts to scan and print the B-9 robot from Lost in Space and a tiny Stormtrooper were failures, the scan looked okay on the printer's 7-inch screen but the prints looked like extras in a face-melting horror movie. The robot actually broke free of the printbed, as so little of the scanned model was touching the ground.
The results are partly due to the limitations of an entry-level, optical triangulation scanner, although increasing the scan accuracy to capture the objects from more angles didn't help.
Deciding that I'd started with something too ambitious, I went back to basics by scanning a Lego brick but the print was still distorted, as if the Zeus had failed to correctly scan the bottom centimetre of the object.
Calibrating the scanner with the supplied chequered board didn't help the situation, nor did coating the block with white powder – to allow for the fact that the scanner can struggle with highly reflective, dark or translucent surfaces. Even scanning and printing a clay dumptruck, supplied as a test scan object, saw the same distortion in the final print.
As you can imagine, trial and error with 3D printing/scanning is a very time-consuming process and I've been testing the Zeus on and off for a few months. I'm told that even with a simple shape like a Lego brick you get the best results by taking several scans and merging them using third-party software like Meshlab which has a rather steep learning curve, or Autodesk Meshmixer which is a bit easier to pick up. At this point I'll admit my enthusiasm for the entire thing started to wane.
So what's the verdict?
AIO Robotics' Zeus is superior to the budget da Vinci Jr in many ways, as you'd expect at seven-times the price, but it's still not the set 'n' forget 3D print and scan solution that you might be dreaming of. Rather than just blame shortcomings of the Zeus it's more due to the nature of the technology. Decent home 3D printing – and scanning – are still not as consumer-friendly as vendors selling budget models like the da Vinci Jr would have you believe.
Each problem I encountered with the Zeus introduced a new level of complexity and a steeper learning curve. Having one in your home feels less like owning an all-in-one 3D print/scan solution and more like signing up for a correspondence course in industrial manufacturing design – complete with research projects and a lot of background reading before each class.
Thankfully the local AIO Robotics distributor who supplied the review unit has been extremely helpful every step of the way. It provides a high level or pre and post-sales support, including user education and training – targeting the advanced hobbyist, prosumer and education market on the understanding that decent non-industrial 3D printing is still at the early adopter stage.
As I said with the da Vinci Jr, don't sign up for 3D printing unless you're prepared to invest a lot of time and effort into getting decent results. Even then you'll also need a practical use for a 3D printer, beyond printing novelty trinkets, in order to get long-term value from your investment.