Review reloaded: The da Vinci all-in-one 3D printer disappoints

After my initial look at this 3D printer/scanner, I spent a week trying out various features -- and finding that first impressions can be deceiving. (I also learned from 3D printing pros that some problems can be solved.)

After spending a week with the new da Vinci 1.0 AiO all-in-one 3D printer, I've decided that first impressions can be deceiving.

This printer, a first in the consumer-grade 3D printing industry, can scan objects up to 6 inches high and use the resulting 3D image to replicate them Like other 3D printers, it can also use downloaded file images to create objects, too.

During my initial review last week, I noted how I was impressed with the design and function of this all-in-one from XYZprinting. It is a sleek-looking printer that's as simple to set up as can be. But after using it for more than a week, I found myself disappointed on several fronts.

First, the accuracy of the printer ranges from very good to poor, depending on the detail you're requiring it to produce. For example, a bust of Stephen Colbert came out good with only minor problems; a model of the Eiffel Tower, with all its intricate scaffolding, failed miserably.

Secondly (and perhaps most disappointing), I found the scanning technology to be a blunt instrument often incapable of reproducing objects accurately.

And finally, the software -- while intuitive to use -- tends be a bit kludgey, with some rather annoying processes.

Despite those concerns, I would still recommend this printer to a beginner maker largely based on price. At $799, it goes for well below machines with less functionality. That said, you're not going to be churning out accurate duplicates without a lot of effort.

The printer can create objects that are 7.8-in x 7.8-in by 7.5-in in size. It can scan objects up to 6-in high, but they must be at least 2-in in diameter. Anything smaller isn't picked up by the software.

Caveat emptor

The da Vinci all-in-one printer uses two 2-megapixel cameras and two laser diode modules to scan objects into the XYZware virtual platform. The optics modules, on either side of a round turntable, shoot laser beams at an object as it turns 360 degrees and the cameras capture shapes.

The machine's laser scanner has a resolution of .05mm and its camera's resolution is .25mm, which refers how accuratly is replicates objects.

The basic function of a 3D printer is to be able to take 3D image files (most commonly in .stl or stereolithography file format) and accurately reproduce those images. The da Vinci 1.0 AiO, at times, struggles to do this.

Files I downloaded from Thingaverse.com -- a popular site created by MakerBot for sharing user-created digital design files -- often came out inaccurate. For example, an iPhone sleeve I attempted to print was unusable because of glaring malformations. The problems included round holes that wound up oval shaped and an outer shell that looked more like a spider web than a smooth plastic body.

The more intricate the design of an object, the less capable the da Vinci 1.0 AiO all-in-one printer was able to create it. A diamond-patterned napkin holder came out perfectly, but a turkey cookie cutter had breaks in its pattern.

An attempt to print a model of the Eifel Tower failed miserably. It started out with four legs and deteriorated into a twisted mesh of material higher up to the spire.

The 3D scanner also cannot capture appendages thinner than two-inches in diameter, severely limiting what you can recreate on this machine.

The scanner

To be fair, XYZprinting's user guide does explain that there are limitations to what the scanner can pick up, including fuzzy objects or ones with fine spikes, objects with deep holes and shiny surfaces. The sheen reflects the red laser back at the camera, fouling the image.

This can be frustrating for a user who is attempting to get a scan completed by adding, say, corn starch to the outside of a shiny object to take off the plastic or metal sheen. Even after attempting to dull the sheen, the scanner wouldn't pick up the object.

What I found most disconcerting was that even non-shiny objects larger than two inches in diameter with thick appendages also didn't scan properly.

For example, I attempted to scan a six-inch tall replica of Rodin's "The Thinker", but only a sliver of the object would appear in the virtual view. I made several attempts to scan it, and the printer simply could not capture the statue's outline.

Next, I turned off the "auto" scanner setting and instead adjusted it for "dark" and "light" specific objects, but that also had no affect on improving the quality of the scan.

I attempted recalibrating the 3D scanner several times with a handy checkered plate that the company provides, but it didn't affect the outcome of previously unsuccessful scans. The odd thing is that as the lasers scanned an object, it appeared to be capturing most of the details in XZYware CAD software screen. But the resulting virtual 3D image didn't include those details. So this may be a software rather than an optics issue.

Pro tips

I spoke with an XYZprinting technician who was helpful in resolving some of the issues I ran into.

For shiny objects, the instruction manual recommends powdering them with cornstarch (a messy prospect at best); the technician recommended fairly low-tech solution - buy a can of Plasti Dip Spray. The latex spray gives objects a white matt surface that the scanner can pick up, thereby solving any sheen issues. You simply peel the latex off the object when you're done scanning it.

The Plasti Dip Spray ($5.95 at your local hardware store) also solves another scanning issue: color contrast. The laser scanner has a tendency to lock onto a single color, whether dark or light. If the object you are scanning has stark color contrasts, the scanner will often lock onto one and misinterpret the others causing malformations. I tried this trick and it worked.

Additionally, if a scan misinterprets the shape of an object, users can save the scan and bring it up in a third-party computer-aided design (CAD) application such as SolidWorks or AutoCAD and manipulate it until the shape is accurate. The file can then be re-uploaded and printed.

One of the issues I ran into over and over was a "printer is busy" message. This occurred after running a scanning job that did not successfully capture an object. I would delete the image, but the printer would remain inaccessible, telling me that I needed to wait until after the printer finished the current task. It was either that, or my computer would throw up a "device not found" message. It turned out that the printer had to be reset after each use; you simply had to return the menu to the home page.

Another software issue I continued to experience was an "out of boundaries and resize" message that alerted me that an object I was attempting to print from a downloaded file was too large or needed to be moved to a different location on the print bed. The problem: You cannot resize or reposition an virtual object isn't there in the first place.

The XYZprinter technician explained that .stl files don't tell you whether the virtual object is scaled in inches or millimeters. The da Vinci printer's default is millimeters, but it allows for measurements in inches as well. Switching from "mm" to "in" in the menu can sometime solve the upload problem.

What I did like about this printer is the ease of use. Thermoplastic filaments, either ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) or PLA (Polylactic acid), typically come in spools like so much weed whacker string. With this printer, you simply install a cartridge by dropping it into the top of the machine.

The fact that the mechanics of the machine are encased reduces noise and the odor of melting plastic, and the print platform is particularly well made.

The print platform has a heated glass top that makes it easy to remove printed items. Many 3D printers use a "perf" or perforated board that is attached to the printer platform with clips before beginning a job. The many tiny holes in a perf board allow the thermoplastic to adhere firmly to the platform during printing. Once a print job is completed, the perf board, with the finished model on it, can be removed from the printer; the model can then be separated from the perf board. Unfortunately, perf boards also wear out rather quickly as they become clogged with thermoplastic. That also don't produce a smooth bottom on printed objects.

XYZprinting has created a machine that any novice can use, and while it may not always produce replica-grade quality printed objects, it would be useful to hone your 3D printing abilities. I do think the hardware is capable; the Achilles Heel is the software. Hopefully, future upgrades will improve print quality.

In the end, the problems I ran into with this printer are similar to issues I've had with other, more expensive rivals. You could get a MakerBot 3D printer that might do better on some objects, but you'd spend around three times the money to do so. For the price of the Da Vinci, nothing else comes close.

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