Review: The Nobel 1.0 -- stereolithographic 3D printing on the cheap

For $1,500, XYZprinting offers a printer that is slow, but can blow away fused filament printers in accuracy.

XZYprinting's Nobel 1.0 3D printer

When I unboxed XYZPrinting's Nobel 1.0 stereolithographic (SLA) 3D printer, I'd just finished shipping off another top-rated and remarkably accurate SLA machine, the Formlabs Form 1+.

XYZprinting is known for its low-cost printers -- the Taiwanese company has made its bones in the market by offering up what are arguably the least expensive plug-and-play 3D printers available today; its da Vinci Jr. 1.0 retails for just $350. So I was skeptical that its version of a liquid photosensitive polymer-based printer would stand up to the competition.

In some ways it did -- in others, it didn't.

At $1,500, the Nobel 1.0 is XYZprinting's most expensive 3D printer, but cost is relative. It is about half the price of other SLA machines, such as the previously mentioned Formlabs Form 1+ and FSL3D's Pegasus Plus.

img view nobel right XYZprinting

The Nobel 1.0 stereolithography printer looks like an obelisk and is almost two feet tall.

SLA printers use a tank filled with photosensitive resin and an ultraviolet light source (a laser) to trace out the design of a model that's been uploaded to the machine. A print (build) platform is lowered into the resin pool and the laser strikes the pool of resin from underneath, hardening the resin as it draws out the pattern layer by layer. The build platform lifts out of the pool and an object is created upside down.

The Nobel 1.0, which was unveiled in January and will go on sale in the third quarter of this year, is shaped like an obelisk. It's nearly two feet tall, but it's got a relatively small footprint (11.0 x 13.2 in.), so it fits nicely on a desktop with room to spare. It weighs only 21.2 lb. The build area is a respectable 5.0 x 5.0 x 7.9 in.

Simple to set up and use

As with all of XYZprinting's machines, the Nobel 1.0 was a snap to set up in under five minutes. As with the company's other 3D printers, the Nobel 1.0 has a 2.6 x 1 in. LCD display controlled by six buttons, four of which are cursor controls that allow you to traverse a menu for utilities, settings and other information. There is also a central "select" as well as a handy "home" button for returning the menu to its original setting.

The machine has onboard file storage and a USB port for uploading stereolithography (.stl) files for printing via a USB cable attached to your computer. Onboard storage is useful because, once a model is uploaded from your computer to the printer, you can disconnect and go on your merry way while it prints. The Nobel 1.0 requires a computer running Windows 7 or later; other printers I've reviewed were compatible with Windows, OS X and Linux platforms.

XYZprinting supplied me with a 17.5-oz. bottle of clear photosensitive resin with which to print. (As of this writing, I had no information about what other colors are being offered or the pricing for the resin.) SLA machines are skimpy in their use of resin, so a 17.5-oz bottle can print dozens of models -- depending on their size, of course. After printing two good-sized pieces, I'd barely touched the resin level.

The printer comes with a USB drive loaded with XYZwareNobel CAD software. Using the software, you can load .stl files and inspect them prior to printing or adjust the model and layer size. Other than that, there's no other model manipulation offered. (On other 3D printer software, for example, you can inspect each layer of a model prior to a build to ensure quality and figure out whether support material is needed.)

I knew that, like other SLA printers, the Nobel 1.0 wasn't going to offer blazing fast build times -- but even with that consideration, this machine moved at a glacial pace. A simple Origami-style rabbit figurine, about 3.0 x 1.5 x 1.0 in. in size, took four hours and 37 minutes to print. The figurine, however, printed beautifully, leaving me with a semi-transparent, crystal-like model.

3D printed rabbit IDG

On the left is the oragami-style rabbit figurine printed by the Nobel 1.0. On the right is one printed by XYZprinting's da Vinci Jr. fused filament fabrication printer. Notice how precise and smooth the Nobel 1.0 figurine appears. That's the difference using an SLA printer can make.

The lengthy build time was an issue, though. By comparison, printing that same rabbit model on XYZPrinting's da Vinci Junior fused filament fabrication (FFF) machine took just an hour and 44 minutes. Heck, I was able to print an incredibly detailed, five-inch-tall model of the Eiffel Tower in three hours on the Formlabs Form1+.

And with that came my greatest disappointment with the Nobel 1.0 printer.

The Eiffel Tower challenge.

Of all the models I use to test 3D printers, the Eiffel Tower always poses the greatest challenge with its intricate latticework of scaffolding; it's the litmus test I use for 3D printers.

The Nobel 1.0 can produce layers that are 100, 50 and 25 microns thick. (The Form 1+ can do the same, plus it has a 200-micron "quick build" feature.) To put that in perspective, 100 microns is about the thickness of a sheet of paper or a human hair; 7 microns is about the diameter of a red blood cell. We're talking small.

For the fun of it, I attempted to print the Eiffel Tower using the Nobel 1.0's thinnest 25-micron resolution. I tried a half dozen times to get the machine to print, but it spent more than an hour attempting to process the model with its slicing software. (3D printers must virtually slice models into the many layers they'll use to create them before they can begin the printing process.)

The Eiffel Tower's 1,209 layers simply proved too arduous a task for the XYZwareNobel software.

I changed the software's setting to 100 microns per layer, and the software still took more than 30 minutes to slice the model. However, it finally completed the task and I hit "print." The machine's LCD display then relayed to me that it would take six hours and 11 minutes to print, more than twice the time the Form 1+ SLA printer needed for the same model.

The main attribute of SLA 3D printers is their accuracy and ability to produce a relatively smooth surface. With FFF 3D printers, no matter how high the quality, the surface will have a ribbed feel. The ribbing is created by successive layers of a filament polymer being melted and extruded layer by layer.

Eiffel Tower 3D printed IDG

On the left is the Nobel 1.0 printing of the Eiffel Tower. On the right is one printed by the Formlabs Form 1+ SLA printer. Notice how the Nobel 1.0 model looks out of focus; that's because its accuracy is not as precise as the Form 1+ printer's.

The resulting Eiffel Tower print job was good, but not great. It was better than any FFF 3D printer I've reviewed, but not as good as the Formlabs Form 1+ SLA printer. Details on the Nobel 1.0's model, such as the latticework closer to the tower's pinnacle, were not crisp -- and, in fact, became one fused mass on the upper half. Still, the overall model was a really good representation of the tower.

Noise factor

Another benefit of SLA printers is that they're quieter than FFF 3D printers. FFF printers have a platform and print head that move on an x and y axis, creating a constant mechanical drone.

Other than the resin tank being adjusted and the print platform occasionally lifting, the printing process on the Nobel 1.0 is silent; it's simply a laser striking resin.

And, speaking of resin, one feature I loved and hated on the Nobel 1.0 was the resin tank auto fill. The Nobel 1.0 allows you to either manually fill the resin tank from a bottle or you can connect tubes from a special bottle lid to the machine that will then automatically fill the tank when levels become low. (Interestingly, this feature was not included with the more expensive Formlabs Form1+ printer.)

screen shot 2015 06 11 at 12.43.01 pm XYZprinting

This image displays the resin bottle set up with an autofill cap. The machine draws resin from the bottle automatically, maintaining levels during a print job and, more importantly, not leaving the resin tray filled with excess liquid after a print job is finished.

Other than convenience, the reason this auto-fill feature is valuable is that resin can harden over time, so leaving the tank filled with resin would more quickly lead to issues down the road; while they're not insurmountable issues, a user would likely have to shell out $50 or so for a new resin tank if material hardened on the bottom.

Now comes the part I hated about the auto fill: The tank doesn't just fill once during a print job, it incrementally fills over and over again -- and the sound it makes during that process is a shrill buzz that will make you want to put the machine in another room while it prints.

There were other annoying issues. For example, the initialization process took ten minutes every single time I turned it on -- something I've not seen on other 3D printers. And the USB and power cords could each use at least another foot of length.

A design feature that also turned me off was the cover. It has no hinge; it simply lifts off -- and it's so dark that you can't see your model as it's being built.

The reason for the dark hood is to protect the UV-sensitive polymer resin in the tank, but the last SLA printer I reviewed had a far more transparent cover that allowed users to see the printing process. While no one wants to watch an entire 3D print job, you do want to be able to check in on it from time to time to ensure it's being executed properly.

On the other hand, the Nobel 1.0 detects when the cover is removed or ajar; if that happens, the machine pauses the print job, and once the lid is again in place, it resumes work without issue.

One attribute I loved about the Nobel 1.0 was the ease with which models detached from the print platform. That's particularly important when you're working with SLA printers because there's excess resin dripping from the model and build platform when you remove it. Any scraping you need to do with the provided spatula just makes things that much messier.

To date, I've not reviewed any 3D printer where models can be removed more easily than this one. They just popped right off.

Nobel 1.0 3D printer IDG

In this image, you can see the Eiffel Tower just after it was completed. The tower lifts out of the resin basin at the bottom and is attached upside down to the removable print platform.

As with other SLA printers, after creating a figurine or other object, you must give it a good rinse in an isopropyl bath. XYZprinting includes a tank with which to do this; you supply the alcohol.

Bottom line

Overall, the Nobel 1.0 excelled over any FFF 3D printer in its ability to reproduce accurate models from .stl files containing CAD drawings. Though not as good as a higher-end machine, it'll save you half of what you'll pay for those other printers.

However, there are a few major drawbacks -- the worst being the slow slicing speed of the software and the enormous amount of time it takes to print objects.

If you're not in a hurry, however, XYZprinting's Nobel 1.0 3D printer will give you good-quality reproductions of your own work or of files you've downloaded to print.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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