XYZprinting da Vinci Jr review: A 3D printer for everyone
At a whisker under three hundred quid, the da Vinci Jr is comfortably the cheapest 3D printer we’ve ever seen. Surprisingly, it doesn’t look it. While the likes of Velleman’s £400 K8200 printer are built on rudimentary frames, the da Vinci Jr is a solid-looking enclosure in thick moulded plastic.
It’s reminiscent of nothing so much as XYZprinting’s full-sized da Vinci 1 3D printer, and even sports a similar four-line LCD display on the front. The Junior has a friendlier design, though, with a jaunty orange trim that calls to mind one of the original iMacs.
Design and features
How has XYZprinting managed to hit such a low price? Part of it is probably down to the compact design: the Jr measures 43cm along its longest edge, making it around 12cm smaller in every dimension than the original da Vinci. It’s still a big presence on your desk, but not a ridiculous one. The print area is thus scaled down too, from the 20cm3 of the da Vinci 1 to 15cm3.
But the real savings come from simplified internals. The extrusion head is specified only for PLA, not the more brittle ABS, and rather than having its own feeder for the filament, plastic is fed into it by a separate motor at the side of the casing, through a special tube that loops curiously out of the top.
The boldest omission, without a doubt, is the heated print platform. Hitherto it’s been received wisdom among the 3D-printing community that your platform needs to be kept really hot throughout the process, to ensure that the lower layers of your model don’t contract during printing and detach from the print bed. Delightfully, the da Vinci Jr instead comes with several large squares of masking tape, which you stick on to the plain glass print bed to produce a rough surface for your model to stick to.
The nozzle cleaning procedure is similarly low-tech, requiring you to poke a narrow piece of metal up into the extruder to dislodge any wayward bits of plastic. And while XYZprinting doesn’t publish details of the da Vinci Jr’s internals, it appears to be very low on internal RAM: the first time we tried to send it a model, it refused to print until we inserted a 4GB SD card into its internal slot.
Using the da Vinci Jr
None of this immediately rules the da Vinci Jr out of contention. Indeed, as we set up our first print, impressions were very positive. The XYZware printing client is basic, but it gives you a good 3D overview of the models you import, and lets you scale and rotate them as desired. As usual, support material can be added automatically, and you can optionally add a raft or a brim to your print, to help keep everything together; the printer comes with a scraper and wire brush for tidying up your model once it’s complete.
Printing is a slow process, but not conspicuously more so than with other printers we’ve tried. You can choose a print resolution from 0.1mm to 0.4mm, to balance precision against speed: at the standard 0.2mm setting we found it took around 40 minutes to print a Lego brick, and approximately eight hours to produce a small model skull.
A fan at the back of the enclosure keeps the airflow nice and even while you’re printing, and the whirring of the stepper motor as the extrusion head moves back and forth is all but inaudible over its hum; hands down, this is the quietest 3D printer we’ve tested.
Inevitably, we didn’t get to the end of our tests without a few hitches. At first, we had problems with the plastic not setting properly on the bed. We deduced that the nozzle was at the wrong height – but since the da Vinci Jr doesn’t auto-calibrate, we had to correct it manually through a process of trial and error, stepping the nozzle up and down in 0.05mm increments and firing off test prints until we’d found a setting that seemed to work. If this only needs to be done once in the printer’s lifetime then fair enough, but if the height drifts over time this will become a tiresome and wasteful chore.
Once we’d found a successful nozzle-height setting, things went much more smoothly: smaller models stuck perfectly cleanly to the masking-tape bed, making us wonder why anyone ever thought a heated platform was necessary. Unfortunately, larger models kept getting dislodged once they grew beyond around 5cm in height. Since it can easily take around five hours, and a quarter of a spool of filament, to get to this point, this was frustrating indeed.
Once we’d clocked the problem, it was easy enough to fix in a hands-on manner that we think XYZprinting would have approved of: a light coating of Pritt Stick was all it took to keep the model anchored to the base until the job was done. Even then, though, tall models were liable to collapse under their own weight while printing, unless assisted by generous quantities of support material – a common problem with 3D printing.
As for our test prints, we have to say we’re impressed. The tops and bottoms of our Lego bricks were clean enough to fit together, while flat surfaces were regular and gapless. The undersides had a tendency to curl up away from the platform, and vertical detail is always a challenge for any 3D printer, but we’ve seen much worse results from more expensive hardware.
There’s one catch that must be mentioned: the da Vinci Jr takes proprietary filament spools, which have a built-in chip that tells the printer when the reel has run out. That means you can’t just feed it generic PLA at around £20 per kilogram: you have to buy da Vinci-branded spools at £30 for 600g. That’s a real swizz, as there’s nothing at all special about the plastic itself; but considering the upfront price of the printer, it’s not too hard to suck up.
Is this the device that’s finally going to bring 3D printing to the mass market? Absolutely not. Like every 3D printer we’ve seen so far, it’s clunky, quirky and nowhere near capable of matching the quality of industrial injection-moulding.
It’s also limited in terms of material, and print size. But for the curious tinkerer who hasn’t already taken the plunge, the da Vinci Jr really could be a watershed device. With its comparatively desk-friendly design, quiet operation and unbeatable price, it’s hard to resist.