The Replicator is Still Sci-Fi, But Here's a Start

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

The dream of the Replicator, a machine that can create or copy any object, has mesmerised us ever since Star Trek used one to conjure a glass of water out of thin air. Yet, like so much other sci-fi tech invented by show business, it's always been just out of reach. The 3D-printer company XYZ Printing wants to change that.

What is It?

XYZ is a one-year-old Taiwanese company that has found a niche in offering 3D printers at bargain-basement prices. Now the company is launching its ambitious next step: The Da Vinci 1.0 AiO — or All-in-One. It's the bones of XYZ's Da Vinci 1.0 model 3D printer, which prints one colour of ABS or PLA filament on a bed that can fit objects up to 15cm x 15cm. But in addition to the printer, the AiO includes laser scanner at its base that lets it record and digitise objects as well as print them.

The idea is simple: put an object in, scan it, then print out a replica. It's easy to imagine just how incredibly transformative a device like this could be. Picture being able to replace a broken part in a few hours from your own home. Or being able to scan a gadget you already own and improve on it yourself. You could scan and send a prototype to a friend across the country, and they'd be able to print it out or edit it themselves, before sending it back to you for printing.

It's not quite conjuring things out of thin air, but it's the closest we've come yet.

The Replicator Is Still Sci-Fi, But Here's A Start

Using It

First, a confession: I am an at-home 3D printing noob. The only 3D printing I've ever done has been remote, through a lab at school used super-accurate machines that could churn out incredibly detailed models at the drop of a hat. So, faced with setting up my own device, I was nervous.

The AiO turned out to be incredibly easy to set up, despite the shockingly vast array of packaging materials and extra parts that came with it (it barely fit up the stairwell of my turn-of-the-century apartment building). Though the user manual could benefit from some bigger, clearer illustrations, the setup is basic enough that it didn't take long to figure out the machine without them.

The Replicator Is Still Sci-Fi, But Here's A Start

The AiO in scanning mode.

XYZ's own software, likewise, is as easy as pie to use. The company supplies two separate applications that are linked by an export feature: one for scanning, and one for printing. There aren't many options for editing models in situ, but there are plenty of free programs, like Google SketchUp, which will do in a pinch.

Before we get to specifics, here's a brief rundown of how the object creation process works. You open up the model space in XYZ's scanning program, then start the simple process of scanning an object. The program raises the print bed—where models are made—up to the top of the device, then asks you to place the object you'd like to scan on a black circular tray at the base of the device. This disc rotates as two 3D scanning modules — one on either side — cast a thin red laser onto its profile, recording the data and constructing a 3D model. The whole process usually takes about five or six minutes.

The Replicator Is Still Sci-Fi, But Here's A Start

Once you've got your model, you can save it or send it straight to XYZ's printing program, where you'll be able to customise aspects of the printing process, like shell thickness and speed. Depending on the size of your model, the AiO will crack out an object within a few hours, on par with other desktop 3D printers out there.

The Replicator Is Still Sci-Fi, But Here's A Start

Like

Regular 3D printing fans may scoff, but there's nothing quite like watching a 3D printer churn out a model. It really does feel like magic. XYZ's printer is fast and fairly intuitive. Compared to other models I priced out, it's comparatively cheap: if you were to buy XYZ's Da Vinci 1.0 without the 3D scanner, it would cost you £489. MakerBot's cheapest printer, the Replicator Mini, costs twice that.

The Replicator Is Still Sci-Fi, But Here's A Start

Prints from the AiO's bed.

Unfortunately, there's a very simple reason why XYZ's printers are priced so low: They only work with the company's proprietary filament spools, so you have to use ABS or PLA filament bought directly from XYZ, which only comes in 13 colors. One 600 gram spool of filament will cost you £18 from XYZ, while a one kilogram roll from other online retailers costs roughly the same amount. That means you're paying more for filament, and if XYZ ever goes out of business, you're out of luck.

If that's a risk you're willing to take, XYZ's printer is more than serviceable: it's accurate, fast, and quiet. The fineness of its prints depend on the speed at which you print and range from 400 microns to 100 microns, similar to the print resolution of a MakerBot Replicator 2. That seems surprisingly good for the cost.

The Replicator Is Still Sci-Fi, But Here's A Start

But this isn't just a review of a 3D printer. It's also a review of a 3D scanner. Which is where I ran into some problems.

No Like

3D scanners like the one inside the Da Vinci AiO work by shining a laser on the profile of a particular object, then recording the 3D shape based on the resulting data feed. I'd used 3D scanners before, and knew that glitches and errors in the technology are more than common. And as I scanned objects from around the house, it was clear that AiO's scanning technology still leaves a lot to be desired.

One of the things that had intrigued me about replicators in pop culture is the idea of creating replacements for useful items, like small doo-dads from around the house, or even an extra key for a padlock. But unfortunately, the scanner doesn't do very well with reflective technology. The best read I was able to get on my laundry key was awash in glitches:

The Replicator Is Still Sci-Fi, But Here's A Start

Likewise, a replica of a pencil holder on my desk came back garbled:

The Replicator Is Still Sci-Fi, But Here's A Start

But a few objects ended up working like a charm. I had great luck with simple geometries and single-color objects, which as XYZ's fantastic support explained to me, are the best for scanning.

For example, AiO returned a serviceable scan on a skull candle that XYZ included as a sample object. When I scaled it down and printed it, not wanting to waste my precious cartridge of filament, it turned out a pretty good likeness:

The Replicator Is Still Sci-Fi, But Here's A Start

And a wood-and-rubber stamp proved to be easy for AiO to replicate, too:

The Replicator Is Still Sci-Fi, But Here's A Start

Though XYZ was more than helpful with tips and guidance, it was disappointing not to be able to scan things that seemed truly useful to copy. I learned that AiO's scanner doesn't do glass or transparent materials, or anything reflective. It also doesn't deal well with high-contrast objects, or complex geometries with holes. So soon, I was looking for matte, non-reflective, monochromatic objects to scan. My dreams of printing headphone caddies, keys, and other objects proved too ambitious.

The Replicator Is Still Sci-Fi, But Here's A Start

As a test, I decided to compare the accuracy of the AiO's printer to its scanner. I downloaded a free shape off of Thingiverse and printed it out; the AiO churned out a clean model in no time. Then, I stuck the printed model back in the scanner and asked the AiO to scan what it had just printed. The final product was passable, though nowhere near as crisp and distinct as the original:

The Replicator Is Still Sci-Fi, But Here's A Start

More than anything else I scanned with the AiO, this image is a perfect representation of how, while 3D scanning is seriously cool tech, it has quite a ways to go before it will be a useful tool in your fabrication lab.

Should You Buy It?

If you're interested in 3D scanning specialist willing to make a big bet on an emergent technology, the AiO might be worth your time. But if you're a hobbyist interested in 3D scanning and printing, it probably makes more sense to spend your money [it costs $800 in the US, no word on UK release date or pricing yet, it would likely be nearly the same figure in GBP going on the relative pricing of the original Da Vinci 3D printer] on a higher-quality printer, one for which you can buy filament from any third-party seller, and experiment with other 3D scanning options on the market.

The AiO is an exciting idea, and some of the time, it delivers. But the inconsistency between the accuracy of the printer and that of the scanner make it hard to imagine many useful applications. It was frustrating to find I was able to replicate certain items perfectly, while others were complete fails. At this point, our real-world Replicator still has one foot in science fiction. Hopefully, it'll make the next step into our world soon.