Ultimaker’s John Kawola Talks Dual Extrusion, Automation and the Ultimaker 3 3D Printer
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on October 18, 2016 |

For quite a while, Ultimaker’s strong community of users has been dreaming of the Ultimaker 3 and the promise of dual extrusion. On Tuesday, Oct. 18, diehard fans of the popular Dutch line of open-source desktop 3D printers finally got their wish.

The Ultimaker 3 3D printer has just been released. Notice anything different? (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)

The Ultimaker 3 3D printer has just been released. Notice anything different? (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)

As happy as they might be to see their favorite brand finally release the Ultimaker 3 with such features as automation and dual extrusion, Ultimaker also hopes to create a whole new generation of dedicated users, specifically in the professional space. With an easy-to-use printer meant to create high-quality, geometrically complex parts, Ultimaker expects designers and engineers to embrace the system as an automated design tool for in-house prototyping and, ultimately, end part production.

John Kawola, president of Ultimaker North America, spoke with ENGINEERING.com about the new Ultimaker 3, its new features, its role in the growing 3D printing industry and how that industry has changed since he was CEO of Z Corp, a company famous for inventing the colorful and capable binder jetting technology that was eventually acquired by 3D Systems.

The Ultimaker 3

The Ultimaker 2 line was released in September 2013, but Ultimaker has steadily updated that line to include a more portable version of the printer, the Ultimaker 2 Go; a taller version of the printer, the Ultimaker 2 Extended; and more capable versions of the Ultimaker 2 and Ultimaker 2 Extended, the Ultimaker 2 Plus line.

At the same, the Dutch firm has released new, engineering-grade materials for more functional, high-quality prints, such as chlorinated polyethylene, polycarbonate and thermoplastic polyurethane.

“The Ultimaker 3 is the next step in that progression to become more valuable and attractive to professional users,” Kawola said. To be more attractive and valuable to people like engineers and designers, the Ultimaker 3 is both more powerful and automated than its predecessors, with the idea that a user can upload a design, click print and pick up a finished part without any issue.

The Ultimaker 3 features much-sought-after dual-extrusion capability. (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)
The Ultimaker 3 features much-sought-after dual-extrusion capability. (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)

For improved capability, the new machine features dual extrusion, making it possible to print with multiple materials, colors and soluble support material, which opens the Ultimaker 3 up to the ability to print more complex geometries. When support structures made from polyvinyl alcohol are washed away with water, a print is left with interior cavities or moving parts, which is not possible with a single, nonsoluble plastic.

This feature has been anticipated by the Ultimaker 2 community for so long, that some were wondering if it was ever going to be released. Kawola suggested that the company took its time to ensure the delivery of a good product.

“Arguably we’ve taken our time in developing this platform in comparison to some others out there who have had dual extrusion for awhile,” Kawola said. “But our case is that the consistency, reliability and stability of most dual-extrusion systems on the market in the desktop category have been spotty. We wanted to make sure we had something that was rock solid.”

A built-in webcam allows for remote monitoring of the 3D printer. (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)

A built-in webcam allows for remote monitoring of the 3D printer. (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)

The second important upgrade brought about with the Ultimaker 3 is a suite of “automation tools,” such as automated bed leveling and near-field communication (NFC) chips within Ultimaker material spools. With other companies, the use of NFC chips would indicate that the machine was not open to third-party filaments. Kawola, however, said that the Ultimaker 3 would still allow filament manufactured by other companies. He added that Ultimaker materials were optimized for the printer and NFC chips would enable the Ultimaker 3 to load this material automatically and adjust settings appropriately.

As Kawola explained, “There are tinkerers and hobbyists that embrace being able to adjust settings and optimize for a given material, and we still have all that capability available for people that want to tinker under the hood. But we think that, increasingly, the professional user just wants to upload their file, hit print, come back and get their part.”

For this reason, Ultimaker has also made its new machine Wi-Fi enabled. Whereas, in the past, users had to save a CAD file to an SD card, insert the card into the machine and print, Ultimaker 3 users will be able to 3D print from the Web and, in the future, mobile apps. An integrated webcam allows for remote monitoring, and multiple machines can be networked together to be controlled from a single hub.

The print core is a modular printhead designed for multiple applications. (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)
The print core is a modular printhead designed for multiple applications. (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)

The final feature introduced to the next generation of Ultimaker printers is what the company refers to as a “print core,” essentially a quick-change printhead module optimized for specific applications. Rather than dismantle the existing extruder, swap out nozzles and so forth, these print cores are meant to be removed and replaced with modules for dual thermoplastics, soluble supports or engineering-grade materials.

The easily swappable print core. (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)
The easily swappable print core. (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)

In the future, Kawola said, this will allow the company to introduce new print cores for specialty materials, such as viscous and high-speed feedstock. All of this will further contribute to the increasing accessibility of the technology, so that almost anyone can use the Ultimaker 3 for just about anything.

Other specs for the Ultimaker 3, as well as the Ultimaker 3 Extended, are listed below. You’ll notice that the only differencs between the Ultimaker 3 and Ultimaker 3 Extended are the height and weight of the printers, with the Extended standing 100 mm taller than the Ultimaker 3.

Specs

Ultimaker 3

Ultimaker 3 Extended

Printhead

Dual-extrusion print head with a unique auto-nozzle lifting system and swappable print cores

Dual-extrusion print head with a unique auto-nozzle lifting system and swappable print cores

Build Volume

Left nozzle: 215 x 215 x 200 mm

Right nozzle: 215 x 215 x 200 mm

Dual material: 197 x 215 x 200 mm

Left nozzle: 215 x 215 x 300 mm

Right nozzle: 215 x 215 x 300 mm

Dual material: 197 x 215 x 300 mm

Filament Diameter

2.85 mm

2.85 mm

Layer Resolution

0.4-mm nozzle: 20–200 microns

0.4-mm nozzle: 20–200 microns

XYZ Accuracy

12.5, 12.5, 2.5 microns

12.5, 12.5, 2.5 microns

Printhead Travel Speed

30–300 mm/s

30–300 mm/s

Build Speed

0.40 nozzle: up to 16 mm3/s

0.40 nozzle: up to 16 mm3/s

Build Plate

Heated glass build plate

Heated glass build plate

Build Plate Temp

20° C–100° C

20° C–100° C

Build Plate Leveling

Active leveling

Active leveling

Supported Materials

Nylon, PLA, ABS, CPE, PVA

Nylon, PLA, ABS, CPE, PVA

Nozzle Diameter

0.4 mm

0.4 mm

Nozzle Temp

180° C–280° C

180° C–280° C

Nozzle Heat-Up Time

<2 min

<2 min

Build Plate Hea- Up Time

<4 min (20° C - > 60° C)

<4 min (20° C - > 60° C)

Operating Sound

50 dBA

50 dBA

Material Recognition

Material recognition with NFC scanner

Material recognition with NFC scanner

Connectivity

Wi-Fi, LAN, USB port

Wi-Fi, LAN, USB port

Monitoring

Live camera

Live camera

Physical Dimensions

342 x 380 x 389 mm

342 x 505 x 588 mm (with spool holder and Bowden tube)

342 x 380 x 489 mm

342 x 505 x 688 mm (with spool holder and Bowden tube)

Net Weight

10.6 kg

11.3 kg

Operating Ambient Temp

15° C–32° C

15° C–32° C

Supplied Software

Cura

Cura

Supported OS

macOS, Windows and Linux

macOS, Windows and Linux

File Types

STL, OBJ and 3MF

STL, OBJ and 3MF

The Ultimaker Community

Throughout Ultimaker’s history, each printer has been made open source about six months or so after release, giving the Ultimaker community and the RepRap movement of which it was born the ability to modify, tinker and improve the technology for personal and commercial use. Ultimaker’s Cura 3D printing software is also open source and widely used throughout the desktop 3D printing community.

Kawola said that none of this will change, not just because it benefits the Ultimaker community, but because it benefits the company itself: “We’re committed to an open-source approach. Even when we think a little bit selfishly for ourselves and the commercial motive, we’ve been winners in terms of being able to get suggestions and input from our users on the hardware and and the software. We also have Cura. Cura is a very widely used 3D printing software platform, and it’s open source.”

Kawola added that Ultimaker’s community has also been key to the company’s marketing strategy. “We’ve fortunately done pretty well with our community, and therefore we’re able to leverage that,” he explained. “We would argue that that is our most valuable marketing aspect today. We would also argue that you have to continue to earn that respect, as some of our competitors in the past have sort of turned on their customers. We’re always conscious of the fact that we have to earn the respect of our community and our customers, ensuring that our product is good, providing high-quality support and doing things that ultimately serve them.”

From Z Corp to Ultimaker

The binder jetting invented by MIT in 1993 has been pivotal in many ways. While the technology was ultimately licensed to voxeljet and ExOne to 3D print sand and metal, Z Corp brought 3D printing to new users through the ability to 3D print full-color gypsum models at a low cost.

Desktop 3D printers have come a long way since the days of DIY kits. (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)

Desktop 3D printers have come a long way since the days of DIY kits. (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)

Just as desktop 3D printer kits, such as those launched by Ultimaker early on, gave 3D printing popular appeal, Z Corp’s full-color technology opened up a vast array of consumer applications for the technology, from 3D-printed selfies to brand merchandise.

However, when low-cost 3D printer kits were first being released, Kawola said that he didn’t think much of them. “I would be the first to admit that I thought that that wasn’t going to work,” he explained. “I also had my own self-interest in mind, and I also had a certain way of thinking about the market, but certainly by five years later, I knew that I had been wrong. What we’ve seen is that, when the desktop market started—and I’m not just talking about one company, I’m talking about pretty much everybody—the quality of the offering was okay but still very much maker-oriented. A lot of the people first buying MakerBot in 2010 and 2011 were probably really excited that they got a machine that was in a whole bunch of pieces, half of which were probably missing, and that didn’t quite work.”

Since then, however, the technology has improved to the point that it is useful to those beyond the prosumer category, and when Kawola joined Ultimaker earlier this year, he carried with him the experience of opening up a low-cost 3D printing technology to new markets.

Kawola explained that, at the time that Z Corp came to market, its printers were among the least expensive available. While other systems began at $200,000, the Z Corp machine was only $60,000. In turn, smaller companies with smaller budgets could bring the technology in-house. The same is true for desktop printers today, according to Kawola. “That was the disruption 15 years ago,” he said. “I see what’s going on now as another disruption, opening up much more access to a much wider range of companies.”

From Prototyping to Mass Manufacturing

Now that desktop 3D printing has become appealing to a much larger audience, Kawola sees the technology being used in two primary ways. The first, according to Kawola, is the distribution of prototyping within an organization.

“There is a limit on penetration with a lot of the current professional platforms,” he explained. “As good as they are and as great as the parts are coming off of them, the access is limited: You need a highly trained user; the printer is in a room; somebody’s got the key; and there might be a queue. As a result, you have to wait a couple of days to get a part.”

With the Ultimaker 3, however, companies large and small are beginning to bring them in-house because the printer is easier to use and has a low price point of $3,495. With a desktop 3D printer, designers can begin 3D printing immediately and begin to iterate designs more efficiently, possibly using the desktop printer in conjunction with other tools like CNC machines and industrial printers.

One company that has partnered with Ultimaker for such applications is Jabil Circuit, the world’s third-largest contract manufacturer and the producer of MakerBot’s 3D printers. As John Dulchinos, vice president of digital manufacturing at Jabil Circuit, said of the partnership, “Additive manufacturing is a key aspect of Jabil’s digital manufacturing strategy, positively impacting numerous areas within our business, including the acceleration of product development, and affording greater supply chain flexibility. Ultimaker has proven a valuable partner in collaborating with our team to bring solutions to market that meet the needs of our factories and customers.”

The second major use that Kawola has seen is the actual production of end goods with desktop machines: “What we’re seeing is that some customers are starting to look at desktop 3D printers and are starting to do the math and saying, ‘These are a lot less expensive. The materials are a lot less expensive. What if we had a hundred of them? What if we use that as a production platform?’ And we’re getting pulled into that conversation, which is fantastic. We’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure that we can meet these needs in terms of part quality, consistency and reliability, but we’re finding that some of these companies are doing that math first.”

As large companies begin to adopt Ultimaker technology, whether for production or prototyping, it will be interesting to see how its open-source, community-centered approach fits into the broader economic system. If Ultimaker can manage to make both its prosumer and business customers happy, then it may be a win not only for Ultimaker, but also for the open-source movement. 

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