The Ember 3D Printer: High-Resolution, Open-Source 3D Printing on Your Desktop
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on July 19, 2016 |

Though Autodesk’s interest in 3D printing was not unknown, it may have been a bit of a surprise when the CAD developer entered the industry with its own 3D printer in 2014. Ember, Autodesk’s first hardware product, is a digital light processing (DLP) 3D printer capable of high-resolution prints for prototyping and even end part production. What may be most unique about the Ember is that both the printer and one of its materials are open-source, a bold move for a large corporation like Autodesk.

Ember from Autodesk is a high-resolution desktop DLP 3D printer. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
Ember from Autodesk is a high-resolution desktop DLP 3D printer. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

Ember is a desktop-sized DLP 3D printer priced at $7,495, which is a relatively low price compared to similar products in its class. For this price, customers receive, in addition to the printer, a finishing kit, four resin trays, two build heads, two liters of resin, a one-year subscription to Fusion 360 and online tech support.  

With a petite build volume of 64 mm x 40 mm x 134 mm (2.5 in × 1.6 in × 5.3 in), Ember is capable of producing parts with 50-micron resolution on the X- and Y-axes and between 10 and 100 microns on the Z-axis. The system has a speed of 18 mm/hour when printing 25 micron layers, though the Ember team has pushed the speed by as much as 24 times.

Due to the open-source nature of the product, users could follow in the Ember team’s footsteps and implement these speed changes themselves by following a step-by-step guide on Instructables.com. There, the Ember community shares a variety of guides for modifying the Ember to get the most out of the machine—a unique benefit to an industrial-grade DLP 3D printer. This open-source philosophy is meant to spread both the use of 3D printing and evolve the platform further.             

A series of rings 3D printed on Ember. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
A series of rings 3D printed on Ember. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

Users can also choose to concoct their own photopolymer resins for Ember, as Autodesk has released the formula for its Standard Clear resin formula for the printer. Otherwise, the company also sells 1-L bottles of cyan, magenta, yellow, black and white resins for prototyping and will be soon releasing a material for 3D printing models for investment casting. 

While the colored resins may be ideal for prototyping parts and iterating designs before going into production, the casting material will make it possible for those in the jewelry, medical, dental and electronics industries to 3D print small, highly detailed objects that can be cast in metal, such as rings, dental crowns or electronic components. 

Ember is Wi-Fi enabled and, with the accompanying Print Studio software, users can network multiple machines. They can also perform automatic mesh healing to make parts printable, as well as automatic support generation or manual support structure drawing. 

How the Ember Works

Ember is a DLP 3D printer, which means that it uses a DLP projector to cast UV light onto a vat of photopolymer resin. In this process, a 3D model is sliced into cross-sectional layers that are transferred to the printer. These images are projected at a series of micromirrors, which reflect onto a vat of photosensitive resin, curing the material one layer at a time.

Ember, in particular, projects a 405-nm UV LED using a DLP 0.45-in WXGA digital micromirror device (DMD) projector from Texas Instruments from below the resin vat. The first layer adheres to the build head, while each layer following sticks to the previous layer. With each layer, the resin tray is rotated back and forth by 60 degrees, ensuring that the printed part does not stick to the resin vat. 

This process continues, with the build head lifting the print out of the vat one layer at a time until the object is complete. Once a print is complete, the object is scraped from the printhead with a metal spatula and any support structures are removed. The print is then placed in a jug filled with a small amount of alcohol for final curing.

As Ember is a DLP 3D printer, the resolution on the machine is quite high and the speed with which it prints is quite fast. The parts may not be quite as strong as those 3D printed with thermoplastic extrusion 3D printers, but the detail will be much better and the process will much faster, even faster than traditional stereolithography systems.

The Ember in Action

While in the past, 3D printing was reserved for rapid prototyping purposes, San Francisco-based Origin Laboratories found that the technology was the only way the firm could manufacture a series of customized near-field communication (NFC) tags. The Chronicled Authenticity tags, embedded with NFC chips, would serve to authenticate pairs of high-end sneakers created by footwear company Greats, as well as shoes from Dunk Exchange collector events and brick-and-mortar shops that plan to work with Chronicled. Each chip and therefore each tag had to be custom made to serve as a unique identifier for every pair of shoes.

Parts made with thermoplastic extrusion 3D printers were not refined enough for the job and the cost of an industrial 3D printer was too high for Origin. For that reason, Origin CEO Chris Prucha decided to purchase a more affordably priced machine. 

An NFC chip is inserted into the tag midway during the printing process. (Image courtesy of Autodesk/YouTube.)
An NFC chip is inserted into the tag midway during the printing process. (Image courtesy of Autodesk/YouTube.)

Due to the open-source nature of Ember, the Origin team was able to transform a fleet of 10 Ember 3D printers into an automated assembly line. To do so, the team inserted a line of code into the machines’ printing procedure that allowed it to pause midway through the process. The printers would then print the initial layers of the tags and stop, giving the Origin team a chance to install the NFC chips into the tag. Then, the print could continue, sealing the chip inside the tag.

A 3D-printed custom fixture ensures the proper location of the tag while materials are changed. (Image courtesy of Autodesk/Origin.)
A 3D-printed custom fixture ensures the proper location of the tag while materials are changed. (Image courtesy of Autodesk/Origin.)

Additionally, Origin found that it was possible to 3D print with multiple colors using the same procedure. The base of the tag could be printed in one color, while a logo could be subsequently printed in another. To perform this job, the Origin team 3D printed a custom fixture mounted to the print head to maintain the exact position of the tags throughout the process.

The 3D-printed NFC chips are used to authenticate Greats’ high-end sneakers. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
The 3D-printed NFC chips are used to authenticate high-end sneakers. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

Each tag has an individualized serial number associated with a blockchain algorithm stored within the tag. Once scanned with the Chronicled app on a smartphone, the authenticity of the shoes can be verified. Through this automated workflow, Origin was able to bring the price of the tags down to just $2.76 apiece with a failure rate of only one in 600 parts. 

Origin CEO Chris Prucha spoke about the machine’s capabilities: “The printer's small build volume for the price leaves a lot to be desired. Notably, the resin trays and many other parts are made from chemically reactive materials that can shatter catastrophically from exposure to non-Autodesk resin. Autodesk acknowledged some of these issues nearly a year ago and has not been able to address it to date.”

Prucha added, “The printer is reliable, prints very quickly and has amazing X-Y (50 micron) resolution. The open nature of the printer makes it easy to hack and experiment with new materials. Autodesk's support team is by far the best we've dealt with, replacing components without hassle.”

Manufacturer: Autodesk

Model: Ember

Material: Standard Clear, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black and White Prototyping Resins are available; Investment Casting Resin is coming soon.

Build Envelope: 64 mm x 40 mm x 134 mm (2.5 in × 1.6 in × 5.3 in)

Layer Thickness: 10 microns (0.0004 in)

Printer Dimensions: 342.9 mm x 330.2 mm x 520.7 mm (13.5 in × 13 in × 20.5 in)

Printer Weight: 10 kg (22 lb)

Recommended Uses: Ember is suitable for rapid prototyping, 3D printing jigs and fixtures, and end part production.

Machine Price: USD$7,495

Who Should Use Ember:

Ember has a relatively low price compared to other similar systems and is a high-resolution printer, making it ideal for 3D printing small parts or batches of small parts. Its open-source nature makes it possible to modify the system, making it ideal for tech-savvy DIY enthusiasts and manufacturers. The release of a castable resin may make Ember suitable for detailed models to be cast in metal, such as jewelry or dental crowns. 

Why You Wouldn't You Use Ember:

The small build volume of the Ember makes it unsuitable for 3D printing large objects or batches of objects. For a lower price point, there are other systems available, but they may not be open-source. 

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