Review: Doodling in three dimensions with the 3Doodler Pro+
We've been following the developments of WobbleWorks since the first Kickstarter in 2013, even raising our doodles off the page on a number of occasions. The professional-grade Pro+ went on sale at the end of October, and we've been spent some time having creative fun and (mostly) making a mess.
Essentially, the 3Doodler Pro+ works in a similar way to a fused filament fabrication device – a kind of 3D printer where plastic filament is routed through a heated extruder head and deposited layer by layer to build a three-dimensional object.
But where such precision machines are fed sliced CAD data in order to build those objects layer by layer, the Pro+ puts creative control in the hands of a human doodler. Yes, the results may not be as perfect, but it's much more fun actually doing the 3D printing than watching and waiting for a machine to do it for you.
Our review unit came with wood, bronze, Flexi, nylon, ABS and PLA filament packs. Each filament is 10 inches (25.5 cm) long and there are 25 per pack. There was also a nozzle set with six additional nozzles in the box, an unblocking tool, a power adapter and a small DoodlePad with circles and lines etched on it to help line up your creations.
To the top of the Pro+ is a small LCD panel and some control buttons. There are presets for each of the current 3Doodler filament types, which ensures that the strand going through is heated to the correct temperature. And for more control, the company has included a custom mode where you can set the temperature yourself (though 3Doodler does recommend keeping in line with its guide range for each of the materials).
The speed at which the filament makes its way through then pen is adjustable from one (slow) to 10 (fast) – slower extrusion does give you a bit more time to think about what you're doing, but faster speeds could help you get the job done more quickly. Though in our experience, you do run the risk of being overrun by fast-escaping filament if you so much as pause in fast mode.
Once the settings have been confirmed, the nozzle end starts heating up. An LED indicator glows blue or green when the set temperature is reached and it's time to rock.
The Pro+ has dual gears for gripping and pushing the filament through the heating element and out through the nozzle. A few seconds will elapse between popping the filament in the feed port near the power switch at the top and the hot material appearing at the nozzle.
As well as forward drive, there's reverse too – for moving a part-used filament away from the heating element so it can be safely removed, the end snipped and stowed away for later creations. Usefully, this model has a maintenance hatch that can be popped off to give access to the insides. This makes troubleshooting easier, meaning you can see where any blockages might be and remove short strands with the help of the reverse drive function. The maintenance hatch snaps back into place with the help of magnets.
Getting our doodle on
The Pro+ proved to be quite a step up from the printing pens we previously tried at trade shows like IFA, which only had a fast or slow speed setting and were restricted to the kinds of filaments they could handle.
Our three-dimensional doodling efforts so far have been confined to quickly following stencils or trying to raise strands of hardening plastic above the surface of a desk to make a pyramid, all without looking a complete idiot to trade show onlookers. But getting a printing pen on our review bench would melt away some of the creative pressure and allow us a more leisurely closer look at what these tools are capable of. Or at least that was the theory.
This version of the 3Doodler printing pen is not really aimed at novice users, it's meant to be used by professional designers and artists – as 3Doodler effectively demonstrated at launch with some impressive creations.
The user manual does include a few basic tips, while the Quickstart Guide includes a suggested project – the Eiffel Tower. This essentially involves following the lines of a template for a number of components that you're eventually required to assemble into a model of the famous landmark. A bit like an Airfix model kit, but one where you create your own parts.
After some test runs to refresh our 3Doodling memory – and a few piles of wasted plastic – we set about creating something from scratch. A guitar pick seemed like a good place to start, and an opportunity to play with different materials.
We did intend to make an acoustic guitar model using the supplied wood filament, but actually found it quite a difficult material to work with so didn't have the luxury of time to experiment and master its foibles, so settled on another freehand creation instead – the head of a wee beastie.
On the whole we had a lot of fun, and the Pro+ did exactly what it's designed to do. But we did find it a tad frustrating having to wait a few seconds for the melted filament to appear at the nozzle after engaging forward drive. The material would then extrude at a constant pace until the drive button was pressed to stop it.
We also got the worrying feeling that 3Doodling can work out to be quite an expensive hobby. Packs of 25 strands can get up to US$15 each, though there is a mixed filament bundle of 10 packs for $49.99. Based on our doodles, we reckon we'd get perhaps two or three beastie heads per pack. How many packs went into the sporty figure below? We have no idea, but we'd guess more than a couple. And 3Doodler recommends that you only use its own brand filaments with its printing pens.
Though the printing process is similar for all of the materials, each material has its own character – where things like how pliable it is, what surfaces it will adhere to while doodling, how long it takes to cool after extrusion and so on, are all different.
And as well as nibbling at your bank account, a simple project can eat into your free time too. Even though the dragon's head project was a bit of a rush job, it still took hours to complete.
The nozzle kit comes with a smoothing/shaping tool for clipping onto a nozzle, and adding some fine touches to the doodle. Sadly this often became loose when pressure was applied to the doodle, meaning that we had to power down the Pro+, wait for it to cool and then resit the tool over the nozzle before powering up again – all adding to the total project time.
That said, being captivated by a gadget that doesn't have a touchscreen and internet access is probably a good thing, right?
When we'd previously had 3Doodlers in our hands at trade shows, we hadn't really noticed how loud they were, but in a quiet room the Pro+ screamed in use. It sounded a bit like gears turning, but since no melted strand popped out of the nozzle unless the drive was engaged, we guessed that the sound must have been the heating element keeping the filament ready for extrusion.
We'd also highly recommend doodling in a well-ventilated room, as shaping and smoothing in particular can result in some rather unpleasant smells hanging in the air.
We found that changing to a different filament for multi-material doodles proved a bit of a fiddle, too. Simply popping in a wood filament straight after using an ABS one, for example, led to extrusion issues, as the former has a lower temperature requirement and the small amount of ABS that remained inside the pen/nozzle didn't seem to want to melt and make way for the wood material.
We couldn't find an easy way around this, and having no success using the supplied unblocker tool, resorted to temporarily using another nozzle (nozzles can only be swapped out while the hot end is, well, hot, or damage to the Pro+ could result). On the plus side, the smell of burning wood was delightful.
Gripes aside, 3Doodling is great fun. The Pro+ is a powerful creative tool and we can see it being very useful for model prototyping, arty creations and even repairing broken items around the home. It's the most pen-like 3Doodler we've used so far, having around half the girth of the Pro model. As its name suggests though, beginners might want to look to another 3Doodler flavor to find their sea legs.
The Pro+ kit is on sale now for $249.99.
Product page: 3Doodler Pro+