Printing with high performance materials can be tough. Sure, options exist on the market, but most come in the form of retrofitting aftermarket components to a printer in one way or another, at least in the midrange consumer market. Enter the MatterHackers, the highest end of MatterHackers’ Pulse line of 3D printers, and one of the few devices aimed solely at printing some of the toughest materials on the market right out of the box.
The Pulse line represents an interesting pivot on the part of its creators. MatterHackers has long been known as a reseller of a wide range of 3D printers, as well as materials to use with them. Thanks to this, MatterHackers has effectively gathered information on what members of the 3D printing community want from their printers for years, and looking at the varieties of Pulse available, it shows. Available in three options with multiple combinations of even further specialized hardware within those three, the Pulse lineup is a love letter to its market; addressing dozens of common complaints with out of the box hardware, and including many of the most common aftermarket upgrades as standard components. Coupled with MatterControl (MatterHackers’ control software), each Pulse stands as an attractive product in their own right.
STANDOUT FEATURES AND SPECS
The standout selling point of the Pulse XE is its versatility, but its ease of use is not to be understated either. Featuring a 250 x 220 x 215 mm (10 x 9 x 8.5 in) build volume, the Pulse finds a good balance in maintaining a manageable footprint with a respectable capacity.
Additionally, the leveling routine via the attached BLTouch sensor makes for a reliable, easily-calibrated printer, and the features offered by MatterControl when a host device is connected to the printer make it incredibly easy to operate. An optional magnetic, removable build plate (included with this review model) means print removal is incredibly easy.
Finally, there’s theon the hotend. The Pulse XE would hardly be able to be called “high performance” if it used a standard brass nozzle for extrusion. The Olsson Ruby nozzle’s name is not just there to sound cool, either. At the very tip of this otherwise normal looking 3D printer nozzle lies a small ruby, with an even smaller hole at the bottom that acts as the aperture. The hardness of the ruby gives an exceptional lifespan to the nozzle, and allows it to resist even the most abrasive of filaments with ease. While other nozzle options exist that accomplish similar goals, those are typically made entirely of hardened materials, such as steel. The Ruby accomplishes the same goal with a lab-made precious stone held in the very head of the nozzle, which is, admittedly, the shiniest way to go about things.
The Pulse XE was made using some of the highest end parts on the consumer to prosumer markets
Another unique feature of the Pulse line is that unlike most printers on the market which run primarily in a standalone fashion with connecting to a computer serving as a backup option, MatterHackers’ printers are designed specifically with their control software, MatterControl, in mind. Attaching a dedicated computer to the Pulse increases its abilities with multiple features otherwise only found on the high end of the market. From being able to calibrate itself with as many as 100 individual points of data, to an increased degree of control over its motion while printing, and even the ability to resume a 3D print that was interrupted in the event of a power failure or other loss of connection (so long as the semi-completed print is still on the bed when power is re-established), MatterControl massively increases the flexibility of the machine. This is not to say the Pulse cannot operate standalone in much the same way other printers typically do, only that by adding a dedicated controller, a Matterhackers Pulse will go from a good, all-around performer to a cutting-edge piece of personal manufacturing equipment.
BUILD QUALITY AND RELIABILITY
The quality of the Pulse XE is not to be undersold. With a frame made of a hybrid of custom-machined aluminum, anodized extrusions, and precision 3D printed components (made with other Pulse printers, no doubt), this printer was built to last. Dampening brackets placed on each of the motors offer noise reduction, and obvious care and thought was put into its overall design. The underlying build quality is one thing, but a lot can go wrong on a 3D printer that has good bones, so what of the other components? In that area MatterHackers has definitely used the best they could find as well.
As an example, MatterHackers has chosen to make use of E3D’s v6, a precision crafted hotend from one of 3D printing’s most respected brands. To push the plastic itself, BondTech’s ultra-high powered extruder has been selected to grant additional power, Ultimachines’ RAMBo Mini motherboard (with Panucatt’s Azteeg x5 GT available as an even higher performance upgrade) forms the brains of the unit, and the excellent VIKI 2 control panel at the front.
In short, the Pulse XE was made using some of the highest end parts on the consumer to prosumer markets, and additionally uses many parts typically added to printers as aftermarket upgrades as standard. All this comes together to make for a precision machined printer with a legendarily reliable extrusion mechanism, a durable motherboard (the very same found in Lulzbot’s Taz 6 and Mini, and I’d say any motherboard trusted by NASA is trusted by me), and with an easy to read, informative display at the front of the unit. In the month I have had the Pulse, it has handled every challenge I’ve thrown at it with ease, and has been printing at a near continuous rate since it left the box.
With all these great features, could there possibly be any downsides to the Pulse XE? Unfortunately, yes. While the Pulse performs incredibly reliably, and has remarkable versatility out of the box, the biggest downside to the XE, and the Pulse line in general, comes from the underlying design. The Pulse XE is a lateral-bed 3D printer, or bed-slinger, meaning the print bed moves from side to side in one direction in order to move the model being printed. This is an incredibly easy design to build, maintain, and repair (as this configuration allows for easy access to the axis and its parts), but comes with the obvious downside that the movement of the bed can cause reliability issues should it move too quickly (due to the momentum of the bed, fighting against directional changes). . This can manifest as the entire print shifting from side to side in extreme cases, to small, wavy lines across the print at lower speeds. Momentum is no friend to a bed-slinger. This means that the Pulse XE prints at an average speed, which should be enough for most, but pales in comparison to the speeds offered by some other models.
As for how well it prints, the Pulse XE operates flawlessly, right out of the box. I have nothing to report in the way of stray marks or blemishes, the layers are smooth, and the corners are absolutely to the tolerances one would expect. While it is worth noting that print quality across most 3D printers in the FDM or FFF category (meaning they use a hot nozzle to extrude plastic filament) can be made about the same with time, modification, and careful tweaking, the Pulse XE needed no work whatsoever in order to produce excellent prints. With a thin layer of glue applied to the build plate, and a short automatic calibration procedure run, I was simply able to select “print” from the interface on MatterControl and walk away, confident that I would return to a finished model. The glue may be something of a sticking point for some, but it is easily applied, and necessary for printing the materials the XE was designed for, such as nylon, (which has the ability to permanently bond to most reusable build surfaces and thus permanently ruin them). That said, a plate that does not require glue, meant for use with other materials is also available as an additional option from MatterHackers.
So, if I am not talking about speed, and I’m not necessarily talking about print quality, what am I talking about when I refer to the XE as being a “high performance” 3D printer? In a word, materials. The Pulse XE’s components are designed to reach and withstand increased temperature, push plastic with higher force, and resist the potential for damage posed by some of the more exotic materials. Some of these components are significantly more expensive than the norm, which accounts for the high cost of this machine, but the benefits are significant in terms of its versatility. Thanks to these hardened components, the XE has access to materials like nylon and polycarbonate, as well as materials with hard fibers or particles in them to increase strength, like carbon or glass fiber.
Having access to these materials opens up whole worlds to a printer owner. Glass infused nylon is often used to make casings for power tools, drone frames and heatsinks for low-power electronics, while polycarbonate can be used for things as varied as high strength electronics enclosures, greenhouse walls, and any application where high impact strength is prized. However, another benefit of the hardened nozzle is a material few newcomers would think of as being a risky material for a printer, namely, anything that glows in the dark. Using its hardened nozzle, the Pulse XE can withstand the intense strain put on it from the hard particles that give glow in the dark objects their distinct shine, where a standard printer’s nozzle begins to wear down as soon as even the first layers of the stuff are placed. From the surprisingly challenging, to the previously impossible, the MatterHackers Pulse XE sure seems like it can print with just about any plastic that can be turned into a string.
This all dovetails nicely to an often overlooked downside of working with such materials. Safety. This past month I have made extensive use of nylon in my testing of the Pulse, and in that time I have had to become quite comfortable in a respirator, due to the dangers posed by using such materials. Nylon, for instance, releases a few chemicals when melted, but one of the most notable has to be hydrogen cyanide. Yes, that cyanide. While my mask filters out a good amount of these toxic materials, it is most certainly not a long-term solution by any means. Proper ventilation through my skylights, and limiting exposure helps as well, but some sort of option for a filtered enclosure for the Pulse would be a good feature to have in the future. Until then, use should be confined to a room with sufficient ventilation for such materials, and away from anywhere that the user may be continuously exposed to the materials while prints are running.Our Take
Overall, my time with the Pulse XE has been phenomenal. Out of my fourteen printers, it’s fast become a favorite, and using it has been a blast for the most part. I can’t think of a task I’ve thrown at it that it hasn’t been able to tackle, and MatterControl’s latest version has proven to be an incredibly capable control system. I highly recommend it for anyone that wants to work with some of the wilder materials out there, and for those that simply want a highly reliable printer, the more affordable standard Pulse is a great choice as well.
Is there a better alternative?
While the desktop FDM printing market definitely has plenty of competition, the Pulse line stands out across the board. The base model Pulse goes toe-to-toe with the Original Prusa i3 MK3/S, but comes away with the advantages of many more options for customization, as well as a shorter lead time.
Meanwhile, the Pulse XE can be considered a competitor to Lulzbot’s Taz line, and other true performance printers. In that case, the Lulzbot has an edge on build volume, but the Pulse XE’s out-of-the-box ability to print with some of the highest performance materials on the market with no need for modification or additional components, magnetic bed, and somewhat lower cost mean it remains an attractive option.
How long will it last?
One of the biggest advantages of open-source built 3D printers such as these is that their future lifespan is more or less infinite. Both motherboards used in the Pulse run commonly used, widely supported firmware systems that speak a common protocol that has been standard in the 3D printing community for years. One benefit of the Pulse line, specifically, is its reliance on MatterControl means further updates of even more advanced features are likely in the pipeline, and support for the product will be readily available for years to come.
Should you buy it?
Do you want to work with the best, without any fuss? If so, absolutely! Otherwise, still yeah! This thing is great!