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The holy grail of desktop 3D printing can be summed up in six words — just set it and forget it. It’s the lofty ideal that digital fabrication should be simple and painless; a machine that can produce dependable results with minimal errors.
Of course, the reality is that the majority of 3D printers designed for the home, office or classroom are not quite there yet. Regardless of a manufacturer’s claims, and no matter how sophisticated the marketing, a 3D printer is an incredibly complex machine that requires steady patience and observation.
And oh boy, things go wrong far more often than they don’t. We’ve all been emotionally mugged by a 3D printer at one time or another.
That’s why using the LulzBot Mini over the course of several months has been such a revelation. Here at the ALL3DP offices, we’ve been operating this wondrous little box alongside several other fused deposition modeling (FDM) machines in our workshop. The LulzBot Mini outshines them all for ease of use and quality.
Why the surprise? Because this is open-source hardware. Anyone who tells you that consumer technology must operate within a closed ecosystem for usability and results is telling you a big fat lie. The LulzBot Mini zeroes in on the things that matter, tidies away the things that don’t, and lets you get on with making stuff.
By golly, we can’t think of a better introduction to the wonderful world of 3D printing than a LulzBot Mini. It’s nimble yet sturdy, and built on the noble foundations of open-source hardware. But the name of the machine doesn’t do it justice; a more accurate handle would be “LulzBot Mighty”.
It should be said that the lack of on-board controls on the Lulzbot Mini — and a workflow where it must be constantly tethered to your PC — came as something of a surprise. We weren’t sure about this design choice. But it turns out that in daily use, having one less step in the 3D printing process makes it less prone to error.
Something else to consider is the stock size of the nozzle; by opting for 0.5mm over 0.4mm by default, the unit is better for printing big and fast as opposed to small and detailed. If you prefer the latter, then you’ll have to switch out the nozzle by yourself. And if you’d really prefer on-board controls, then you have the freedom to go ahead and build some!
If you’re looking for a top quality desktop 3D printer for single extrusion, then call off the search. The LulzBot Mini has been engineered with love, care and attention by the good folks at Aleph Objects; so much so that using it on a daily basis becomes a genuine pleasure.
Still with us so far? Good. Let’s take a deep dive into the nitty gritty, shall we? Aleph Objects is a small company based in Colorado, United States. Their business is built around the development of open-source hardware for 3D printing, with full support for free and open-source software.
They’ve developed a strong reputation for their LulzBot 3D printer range, which closely follows the RepRap philosophy of having 3D printable components. And because it satisfies the requirements for open-source hardware and software, the LulzBot has a much-coveted “Respects Your Freedom” certification from the Free Software Foundation.
Based on the brief outline above, you may be expecting the LulzBot Mini (or indeed its bigger sibling, the LulzBot Taz 6), to take the form of a DIY 3D printer kit. After all, it’s open-source, so it’s supposed to be put together by hardcore geeks and engineers, right?
Nope! All the printers in the LulzBot range are fully assembled. They are famed for their ease of use and maintenance, and they’re incredibly well-documented. In effect, the process from unboxing to printing is smoother than the ceramic bearings on a high-end fidget spinner. Newbies welcome!
The LulzBot Mini is a desktop 3D printer that sits in the fused filament fabrication category. It pushes molten thermoplastic filament through a heated nozzle, and builds a solid object by depositing one thin layer of plastic after the other.
The design is a Cartesian frame of black powder-coated metal, with 3D printed components and linear rails, where the tool head moves on the Z and X axis and the print bed moves on the Y axis.
As for the tool head itself, this is a direct drive design. The filament extrusion and hot end is handled within a single unit, and the filament is fed into the top from a spool suspended overhead. The Lulzbot Mini is a single extrusion machine, which means it can print with only one spool of filament at a time.
One curious thing about the LulzBot Mini that you’ll notice sooner rather than later; there’s no control panel. Nor is there an SD card slot. There’s just a power button and a USB slot. This machine requires tethering to a PC for operation.
It’s a big thing to take into account, and in a daily use case scenario it might be best if you had a dedicated or spare PC computer you can use for the task.
Those specs in full:
Finally, we should call attention to topline features like automated-bed leveling, automated nozzle cleaning, and a special PEI print surface. More about those later.
Opening the box, the LulzBot Mini is securely packed in foam casing with a small set of tools and supporting documentation. Moving parts are secured in place with foam blocks and zip-ties.
There’s also a little Rocktopus mascot in there, holding a fist aloft in gnarly salute. This item has been printed on your LulzBot as a final test before shipping onward to its final destination.
But it’s the documentation that really impresses. It’s comprehensive and clear, and comprised of three parts. The first is a bundle containing the packing list, quality assurance record, safety and warning notice, and regional declaration of conformity.
These first two items are actually a pair of checklists by an Aleph Objects technician, outlining the QA and packing procedure. If anything is missing from your Lulzbot Mini, these are the documents to refer to.
The second part is a poster of the printer in 3/4 profile, with the individual parts annotated for quick reference, plus explanations of terminology and resources.
Finally, we have the quick start manual, which is a masterclass in technical writing. It takes you step by step through setup, software installation, calibration, loading filament, and your first print. It’s incredibly easy to follow.
In terms of materials, the world is practically your oyster. The LulzBot Mini prints with ABS, PLA, HIPS, PVA, wood filled filaments, Polyester (Tritan), PETT, bronze and copper filled filaments, Polycarbonate, Nylon, PETG, conductive PLA and ABS, UV luminescent filaments, PCTPE, PC-ABS, Alloy 910, and much much more.
But we did say “practically”. 3D printing with carbon fiber filaments is not recommended for the LulzBot Mini. While these materials boast physical properties of high strength and durability, they’re also highly abrasive. This can degrade the performance of both the nozzle and hot end of the tool head over time.
In our tests, we printed mainly with Verbatim PLA, Biofila Silk, and ColorFabb GlowFill. We also conducted smaller tests with ColorFabb XT, Innofil3D PET, and NinjaTek Armadillo (mainly to 3D print some fidget spinners, but that’s another story).
In line with its open-source credentials, users have the freedom to use any number of 3D printing software programs. Cura LulzBot Edition is bundled together as standard. Other compatible software is OctoPrint, BotQueue, Slic3r, Printrun, MatterControl, and more.
The Cura LulzBot Edition is a forked version of Cura, which doesn’t have the same interface or slicing speed as the current release. If anything, it resembles an older version but re-skinned with the lime green color-scheme.
The value it brings, however, is not just being preconfigured to work with your LulzBot Mini. It’s also about the library of filament presets.
By default, the software has a series of quickprint settings arranged around material and quality. It has presets stored for most major brands of filament, which can be selected from a dropdown menu. From there, users are invited to choose between “standard”, “high speed” and “high detail” quality prints.
It’s a good way to hit the ground running, but power users may find these settings too limited. To this end, you can easily switch over to the expert mode and tinker to your heart’s delight.
Once a model is uploaded and prepped for printing, you then call up the print control panel to initiate the job. This panel also provides real-time monitoring of both the status of the job and the machine itself. It’s a far cry from monitoring a print from a dinky on-board LCD, and we have to say that we’ve come to prefer this method.
The build volume of the LulzBot Mini is a comfortable 152 x 152 x 158 mm. That means objects up to 6 inches square should be easily accommodated, and the print-head can move swiftly but precisely within the space.
Before a print job commences, the printer takes two small but important steps to ensure that everything is running smoothly.
Firstly, it cleans the nozzle. It does this by rubbing the tip back and forth along a thick felt pad towards the rear of the print bed. This is very important to clean the hot end of any gunk or residue, and ensures that you get a clean print at the start of each job. These pads are consumables; five are supplied with the machine, and you may have to buy more at a later date.
Secondly, it calibrates the print-head in relation to the bed. Since the LulzBot Mini only moves the print bed on the Y-axis, bed-levelling is less tricky than other printers like the Ultimaker or the BCN3D Sigma, where the bed moves on the Z-axis. The Mini does this by simply tapping the metal contacts at each corner of the bed, and that’s it.
Once complete, the print-head moves into position and begins heating up the hot-end.
In operation, the LulzBot Mini is not a quiet beast. It makes a lot of high-pitched squealing and whining, despite the polymer IGUS bushings it has on the rails.
First layer adhesion to the print bed is pretty reliable; depending on the demands of the material, you won’t have to use the glue-stick at all. This is thanks to the PEI print surface which adheres to the glass plate with a semi-permanent adhesive. PLA sticks fine without any additional coercion.
As for the prints themselves, they are super fine. Robust, solid, and evenly fabricated. Because the nozzle size is 0.5mm and not your standard 0.4mm, the Lulzbot Mini is predisposed towards printing large objects quickly rather than small objects in high detail.
This becomes especially apparent when printing with more demanding filaments. It’s not a problem if you’re prepared to switch out the nozzles every once in a while, but it’s something to be aware of.
We’ve focused very much on the ease of use and accessibility of the LulzBot Mini. That’s because we imagine that’s what people will be looking for in their first 3D printer. And in regular operation, they won’t be disappointed.
But that’s not to disrespect the open source community that makes this machine what it is. Some makers don’t need their hands held, they want the freedom to experiment and tinker. And the LulzBot Mini delivers on that front too.
For further reference on upgrades and maintenance, or maybe just to learn how it all works, pay a visit to the Open Hardware Assembly Instructions. Here you’ll find a wealth of tutorials and guides for the complete LulzBot range.
If it’s not already apparent, we totally love using the LulzBot Mini. We’ve had it on loan for the past several months, and in that period of time it’s been our go-to machine for daily use. The entire office will be very sad to see it go.
In some respects it may appear conservative — the lack of on-board controls; the single extruder; using an older fork of Cura software — but in others it’s very foward thinking. Features like automatic bed-leveling, nozzle cleaning and the PEI print surface significantly enhance reliability and repeat-ability.
There’s no denying the premium price tag, but what you get is a well-built 3D printer that just works out of the box. And there’s comprehensive documentation and technical support to fall back on when it doesn’t. In the end, that’s the best you could ask for from any form of technology. Two thumbs up.
License: The text of "LulzBot Mini Review: This Mighty 3D Printer Does the Job" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.