Start-up CEL outshines the established brands through innovation and open thinking.
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A year ago, a total of four 3D printers were shown at CES. Today, more than a dozen 3D printers are making an appearance, each one cooler than the next. So why did we give an Editor’s Choice award to the CEL Robox? The answer is simple: Of all consumer 3D printers at the show, the Robox was objectively the best. Period.
According to CEO Chris Elsworthy, CEL followed a simple yet effective ethos when designing its 3D printer: improve what already exists, make it easy to use, fix problems, and be better than the rest. This motto permeates each and every aspect of the Robox—from the attractive form factor to the innovative internal components.
The Robox impresses at first sight with its sleek design and expensive-feeling chassis materials. The main body and back are metal with black and silver matte finishes. The clear plastic door spans the entire front and top of the device, forming smooth seams where the two surfaces meet. A plastic color underlay at the seams adds futuristic and sleek accents, giving the exterior a polished and clean look.
The clear plastic door is suspended from a lever hinge, allowing the door to slide up and back with smooth action. Once fully retracted, the door locks into an open position allowing easy access to the build well. Fully closing the door triggers a locking mechanism, securing the door to prevent users from hurting themselves and to prevent damage to the mechanism during operation.
CEL packed all of the required electronics next to the filament spool in the left side of the Robox, hiding them away under a glossy plastic plate. Despite the difference in finish and material, the choice nicely complements the matte metal body. The plate is easily removed to give access to the circuitry for maintenance and modification, making the Robox extremely expandable and upgradable. CEL has already hinted at the ability to easily add another filament feed to the mechanism by simply plugging the required components into that compartment.
While the design is sleek and certainly adds to the appeal, it takes quite a bit more to win one of our Editor’s Choice awards. The internals of the Robox are where it distances itself from the crowd. CEL followed its business ethos completely, incorporating the most advanced build plates, extruders, and stages to produce highly detailed prints with unmatched speed and ease.
CEL has simplified the set-up process by including an auto-leveling mechanism to the heated build plate. Making sure that the build plate is completely level is crucial to achieving the best possible print quality and is a huge source of human error in the process. By eliminating this difficult and important step, the Robox makes printing preparations trivial: Just flip the “On” switch and the Robox will automatically adjust pitch, jaw, and roll to bring the plate into the optimal plane.
Even the next most difficult part of prep, the threading of the polymer filament, is almost completely automated. The Robox includes a motorized threading mechanism that makes replacing filament a breeze. The spools ejects at the push of a button (the only button on the machine), which also pauses the machine if it was printing at the time. Threading in the new filament is as easy as it can be: Simply slip the new spool onto the spindle and feed the filament into the feeding mechanism. Once the filament reaches a certain depth, it's detected by the index wheel inside the feed, which triggers the feeding mechanism to draw in the filament until it reaches the extruder.
The extruder itself is the true piece de resistance. One aspect of 3D printing that's usually glossed over is speed. Sure, most people are really excited about printing their own plastic things, but it's doubtful that they're going to stay that way after learning even small objects take over 4 hours to complete at high resolutions. Since quality and speed are always inversely related in printing, the process can be sped up significantly, but usually at the expense of resolution and detail. So how did CEL manage to produce a 3D printer that has both blazing speed and the highest achievable resolution? By re-inventing the extruder.
The Robox uses a unique single filament, dual nozzle extruder: One hyper-fine nozzle prints the highly detailed outside of the object, while the second larger nozzle quickly fills the hidden parts of the structure. As a result, the Robox can achieve resolutions of up to 20 microns on the outside while speeding up the printing process up to three fold. In other words, the Robox prints more detailed objects than its competitors while being three times as fast, which is truly remarkable. CEL also demonstrated a similar dual filament, dual nozzle extruder which allows for fast multi color printing.
Besides the innovative design, the Robox extruder also beats most other in another area: heat. The Robox extruder gets hotter than most of its competitors, allowing the user to use not only the commonly used ABS or PLA plastics, but also nylon and other materials. What CEL is doing here is keeping the users’ options open and ensuring Robox can sustain the test of time, should—for example—the field move into higher temperature materials. In emerging and young technologies like 3D printing, this sort of agility and foresight are a huge boon.
Like its hardware, CEL made sure that its software package follows the same ethos of simplicity. The Robox comes with a simple software package that smoothly guides the user from importing the desired model, placing it on a virtual build plate and breaking it down into printable slices. The user interface is easy to use and gives clear visual indicators of spatial clashes and sub-optimal orientations.
Importing models is quite simple, just download the desired file and open it inside the provided software. In case the model exceeds the size capability of the printer, it is automatically resized, no user input or guesswork required. Want to print the model in actual size? Don’t worry, future updates promise the ability to break it into smaller, manageable parts that can then be assembled.
The CEL software division even made it easy to manage multiple printing tasks. Printing several separate models at the same time is simple: Just open multiple files and then drag them around on the virtual build plate until they're arranged as desired. If you want to keep your print jobs separately, just create new projects and navigate between them via the familiar tabbed interface.
To appeal to the more experienced 3D printing crowd, the software suite also allows the user to tweak every aspect of a project, including nozzle temperatures and extruder positions. Every stage of the process has an "Advanced Options" button, which reveals all of the small adjustments and background settings that are usually hidden from the casual user. While these settings should typically be sufficient, it is nice to know that they can be changed should it ever be necessary.
The filament extruder is easily swapped for any other head, like a regular old inkjet printer head or airbrush. That’s not very exciting, until you realize that thanks to the 3D movement of the head you can’t just print on paper. Now everything from printer cases to t-shirts becomes a printable medium, which opens tons of new possibilities.
CEL fully supports the users’ ability to use your own materials for printing, in fact they make it easy. Just use an empty spool to load up the materials you want to use and snap it in. All that's left to do is tell the Robox what temperatures to use, and off you go.
With all of the unforeseen possibilities presented by their modular system, CEL decided to open their software to the 3D printing community too. None of their software components, including the drivers, are proprietary, and the source code is freely available for modification and improvement. This sort of attitude resonates extremely well with the 3D printing community, which prides itself on inventiveness and the spirit of sharing. If the Robox gains wide acceptance we fully expect to see community-created printing software, which may rival CEL's own in functionality and stability.
The CEL Robox has everything going for it: It looks great, feels solid, features extremely high-end components, outperforms all other polymer deposition 3D printers on the market, and is future-proof. In addition, at a price of around $1,400 you'll be hard pressed to find anything better than an entry- to mid-level model that has anything close to Robox’s feature set. So if you're planning to get into 3D printing, and are willing to wait until its April release, this should be exactly the 3D printer you're looking for.