We got our hands on a really cool device that might be just the toy your kids will do flips over this Christmas. It’s the da Vinci miniMaker 3D Printer, made by XYZ Printing. It’s not the typical toy that we normally write about on this site, but we couldn’t pass up the chance to put a state of the art 3D printer through its paces.
The da Vinci miniMaker is an entry-level 3D printer that is designed with kids in mind. The idea is that it is easy to set-up, has easy-to-use software, and can get you started with lots of available pre-designed objects that you can create right away. But the printer also supports the printing of designs you make yourself with more advanced software. In that way it can grow as your kids grow, and it gets them excited about technology, and gives them some practical experience, at a young age. But it can also unlock the artistic side of kids as well, so it is not a purely technology-focused product.
First of all … Full Disclosure: We were loaned this printer by the manufacturer so that we could test and review it. Our review is honest and is based solely on our own experience.
But enough legal-speak. Now on to the testing! There are many aspects to this review, so I’ve tried to organize it into sections. I am not going to provide every detailed step, but I will highlight areas that worked well for us and those that did not.
The unboxing and assembly was pretty painless, but not without a bit of confusion. For the most part the printer is almost fully assembled. You must first remove all of the packing material from the inside of the printer. And then you have to install the extruder module, the filament spool, and then assemble the plastic protection box. If you follow the instructions carefully these steps will be pretty uneventful.
The confusion we ran into here was that the printed Get Started instructions say nothing about the plastic protection box. We went ahead and installed it and figure out what it was for (to keep curious fingers away from the moving printer mechanism).
Make sure that you locate the printer on a solid, level surface. The constant back-and-forth motion of the printer mechanism (often for hours at a time) could cause it to shift and fall of the table. And instruct any small children to keep their HANDS OFF the printer. It should be handled only by adults and responsible children that can understand that this is a complicated and potentially dangerous machine when it is operating.
You can’t print anything on a 3D printer without the proper software. This is where the miniMaker excels as a tool for young kids. The manufacturer provides you with a package called XYZware, which can use to take pre-made designs and simply and easily print them out. You are not required to know how to design your own three dimensional objects (although you can if you want, with different software). The software lets you import designs, and perform simple manipulations on them: change size, move, rotate, etc.
The good news is that once we got the software installed correctly we were able to print sample designs almost right away. But one problem we ran into was not really knowing where to find the proper software to install. The instructions mention the package XZYware, but we had trouble finding it on their website. We eventually had to go to the Support area, then click on the miniMaker printer icon, then we could find the software to download. This would not be obvious to most users, and we feel this could significantly impact the enjoyment of the 3D printer.
In fact let me say at this point that the XZYprinting website has no special portal or landing page which helps first-time users navigate the site and easily find what they need. This is one area of improvement that we think the manufacturer could improve upon.
We were able to print a number of different designs with our printer. For an entry-level machine we think the printer did an adequate job. The pieces had a few minor imperfections but nothing really worth mentioning in detail. The printer is not noisy – it just whirs and buzzes as it goes about its job.
The printing process is fairly straightforward, but we did run into a few problems (described below). Printing involves the software “slicing” up the design, sending the information to the printer, and the printer does the rest. And then … waiting … and waiting … and waiting. In fact you will need a lot of patience and planning when starting a print. Smaller objects may take 30 minutes to an hour or so. Larger objects can take 2 or more hours. So when beginning any print it is best to ensure that you will be available to check on the progress regularly in case anything unexpected would happen with the print.
The problems we ran into were (a) not initially performing the filament loading step before printing (our fault), and (b) printing a design with a very small base, which did not adhere well to the platform and caused a messed-up print soon after the print started. The object came loose from the platform and the result was a mess of tangled plastic threads.
Problem (b) could have been avoided by applying glue stick glue to the platform surface, to allow the design to adhere better and not move during the print. This is the recommendation when the room temperature is lower than 77 degrees (which it was in our house). We avoided such designs for the remainder of our testing to make sure we could test the printing capability of the unit to complete our review.
The good: We were able to create and print some custom designs with the XZYmaker software. This software is rather easy to use (if you have some computer know-how). We simply saved our design to an .stl file which we then imported into the XYZware software for printing.
Also, the XZYprinting website has thousands of uploaded designs in their 3D Gallery that you can view and download for yourself. There are categories for Toys, Gadgets, Art, and a few others. Once you find something you think you’ll like you can download it, import it into XYZware, change the size as needed, and print it out.
The not-so-good: The included documentation is incomplete and can lead to delays in getting started. The document is a mediocre black-and-white copy of the original full-color manual that can be found online. It is better to download the latest user manual from the XZYprinting website before getting started. The downloaded manual has all of the information you’ll need to operate the printer.
One more thing – this is a one-color printer. Our printer came with yellow filament, so of course all of our objects are yellow. You could probably buy a different color of filament to make objects a more pleasing color. We may do that in the next month or two (we’re already getting tired of yellow)
So what comes next?
You may ask what can you do with this device after printing out a few little toys. Here are some ideas:
- Smooth and paint them to create really beautiful works of art
- Start creating your own designs, using more advanced software
- Find interesting 3D design files on the internet
- Convert photos to 3D files. We found a few websites that will do this by simply uploading a photo.
There are tons of 3D printing related websites on the internet – it is a HUGE are for both professional companies and hobbyists. If you want to get serious about 3D printing there is no end to the information you can find on the internet.
If you bring some patience and perseverance to the table the daVinci miniMaker 3D printer can be a really enjoyable first 3D printing experience for you and your children. Once you work through the website navigation, the software installation, and locating and printing your first design you will feel very satisfied and motivated to think about what other objects you can create. There are lots of small household gadgets and toys that you could print. You could even create custom gifts for friends and relatives, for example a personalized cell-phone stand or Christmas ornament. We give a THUMBS UP to the da Vinci miniMaker 3D printer.