-UPDATED FOR 2016-
Today I am going to write an in-depth review into the 3D printing software, Simplify3D. I believe that this software is extremely useful and while it has a lot of public support for it, it gets attacked unfairly. The program does of course have its issues and is not perfect, but I do want to explain this all to people. The program has saved me so much time and money, I support the company by writing this. I also wish that in writing this review the company will respond and take on recommendations from the public as it is by far the biggest issue with it.
I will go through almost every feature this program offers and how it is useful and where improvements could be made. This is in no specific order, just going through them all.
At $149 USD, Simplify3D’s cost is quite high considering that you can buy fully functional printers for around $350 USD and open-source software is very powerful in its own right. In order to effectively review this software and acknowledging that there is no trial period, first I must explain the price of the software and why you should consider it. Firstly, S3D acts as a slicer and printer controlling software at the same time, so it allows you to run the 3D printer from the same software that slices it which is useful.
Personally, I find the control panel to be ugly and I don’t prefer it. It definitely does all that you need to I just don’t like how it looks. A little more colour in there wouldn’t hurt. What I actually do in practice is I export the gcode generated from S3D and import it into Repetier Host to actually print it while leaving S3D open to slice and prepare more prints at the same time. I just find it a little easier to have 2 programs running doing separate tasks instead of having two windows of S3D open.
However, no one buys S3D because of the control panel. The only reason anyone buys it is for the slicer it comes with. I can easily say that the slicer hands down is the best, fastest and most reliable I have used. But is it worth $149?
I judge this cost by time. In my scenario, I do 3D printing as a full-time job so time spent slicing does actually cost me money. Here is the test piece I am going to be using for the remainder of this article and I will start by using it to show the time saved. Also from here on in I am going to compare to 2 other popular slicers, the proprietary Makerware and the open-source Slic3r.
Simplify 3D sliced this at moderate settings in 15 seconds. This is quite a large print with over 510,000 lines. How long does it take on other slicers?
Makerware which is traditionally a very powerful slicer with great support generation handled this piece in a little over 2 minutes. Slic3r handled it in around 55 seconds. This is just one example, but the speed at which is works at is consistently very high. Now to me, that adds up to a lot of time. Very often I will print-preview a part to see the support generation and time the print will take, I may have to modify the settings if it is taking too long or maybe I saw that I really should have bumped up the infil by 10% to make a hollow part have some strength. Over a year of printing, this can add up to a very significant amount of time.
Therefore to those who can appreciate how long slicing takes or maybe you print very complex models, the price is somewhat justified for the sheer speed of it. One thing I will point out here though is the build time preview loses accuracy the longer a print takes. For anything below about 2 hours it is exact to the minute. Once you get up to prints over 10 hours, suddenly it underestimates by a lot. I have had print previews tell me a part will take 12 hours when it ends up taking 14. It consistently gets worse on larger prints. To the S3D team, I would suggest looking into this, it always happens.
The second aspect of justifying the price to me, is the amount of money lost on failed prints. Maybe you do 3D printing as a hobby on the side and you dont care if it takes a long time because its not a priority, but do you value prints that work often and save you filament cost?
Wasted money on failed prints can be a big deal to people who value their filament cost more than their time, especially people who are 3D printing on a budget. At $149 USD, how will S3D help you avoid this in areas where other slicers wont? I had my fair share of failed prints using Makerware and Slic3r, but how they compare to S3D is important. In my experiences, this comes down to the raft and support features of S3D.
I will go into this in significant detail shortly, I did need to mention it early on though. The vast majority of my failed prints that were due to the software (as in, not clogging the extruder) are due to poor bed adhesion and supports messing up my prints. I don’t get many software-based failed prints like I am sure most 3D printer users don’t either, but when I do and I am forced to adopt a trial-and-error approach to fix them, this adds up very quickly in $$.
As I will delve into that later though, I will now go into the rest of the features of the software and how they are useful or not, again hoping that the S3D team will acknowledge these issues.
The first thing anyone needs to do is configure the software for their printer. Luckily S3D actually does this really well via their configuration assistant. Using a drop-down menu you select your printer from a very wide range of brands and it will automatically set the print size, default speeds, temperatures and literally everything from the manufactures recommendations. If you own a reprap, you simply set the XYZ dimensions of the printer and deal with the custom settings later, but you would be very used to this using any other slicer.
When it comes to loading a model though, the loading and positioning of models in S3D is average. You can move them around by ctrl+left clicking to drag and rotate with alt+left click. Be sure to unselect the checkbox that auto-arranges models under tools-options-models otherwise every time you import a model it will auto-arrange them and throw out whatever you had initially. That can get quite annoying when I lined them up how I wanted only for it to get all messed up. That option should definitely be deselected as default.
An issue with the model importing is when you import an oversized part that needs to be scaled down, S3D has a habit of crashing. Say someone modeled a building and wants it in 1:200 scale, S3D is going to crash every time you import something significantly bigger than the build volume. Its easily fixed by scaling it in Meshlab, Netfabb etc, but no other slicers have this problem.
Once you have positioned the STL, S3D has some interesting features you may want to use.
But to be honest, I have never used these features, ever. Calculating the volume might be useful. If you deal with sketchup models or STLs that have manifold issues, this could work but Netfabb basic is better. The online web app version I find is best of all, consistently succeeding where all others, including their stand-alone application with the full license, fail.
Before we even go into the actual reason anyone bought this program which is the slicer, I will demonstrate the manual supports. This feature is what sets S3D apart from the competition. Doing support generation manually will save you a lot of time and can get prints working exactly the way you want. To do this, we do it from the main screen before attempting to slice it.
With this little box I can set it to automatically generate the support via the top option. I always do this initially at 2mm resolution first and then manually add or remove supports where needed. To start lets go with the quick and easy default of 4/45.
In an instant, we can preview the support generation. I didn’t have to wait 55 seconds for Slic3r or 2 minutes for Makerware, literally click and its there. I can now zoom around and see if I like where its put them. It mostly looks OK however I am concerned about this particular area.
4mm resolution seems too low, but I don’t want to set the entire print to use 2mm resolution, that will take a lot more material to use and will take hours longer to print. Luckily, I can fix this one area by myself. Here the cross-section view tool becomes useful.
By visually removing the upper part I can easily see inside that hole area and add some smaller support columns. Literally the only part of the print which has higher density support is where I want it right now, no need to wait to slice to preview this.
Here is a quick example of a different print I used to show where removing supports is good. Take a look at this part I did recently.
That edge on the side is protruding only 0.4mm, it doesn’t need support at all. Further to this if we cross section view the part we see it is putting support too close to the inside edge, I don’t want this because I want that to be as smooth as possible.
That’s an easy fix, manually remove them.
And its done!
Now back to the original large part we were working on, its time to slice it. Here I would like to reiterate that literally all of the support generation has been done, it took me all of about 20 seconds to visually inspect the part, add some supports where it needed them and I am 100% confident in their generation. S3D’s slicing options are extremely wide, it is honestly a little daunting.
By choosing my printer via the drop down menu, everything has already been pre-filled. Literally everything. I have made a few edits to this though, so I created a custom profile. Since I have 3 different printers, whenever I want to generate Gcode for my makerbot, printrbot or flashforges I just select the preset in the drop down menu and everything is ready to go.
Here you have all the usual features present in other slicers. Extruder, Layer, Temperature, Cooling, Gcode, Scripts, Other and advanced all have standard features in other slicers. S3D does have some unique ones though especially in the temperature and cooling tabs.
You can set the temperature and fan to vary at different layers. Cool, yes. Useful? I doubt it. I have never found a use for it, maybe others will though. That’s not interesting though, what is interesting is the very powerful settings S3D has in the additions, infil and support tabs. These are what makes the software so great to use.
The skirt and brim is basic stuff, but the raft that S3D generates is godlike. To put things into perspective, the raft toolpath that S3D generates is the same path that Stratasys Fortus printers use. It might be a little material heavy, but it is SUPER reliable. Never have I used a raft function so consistently good. I think the default settings are wrong, so I use 2/2/.14/100 which gives a raft that draws 2 very thick first layers, 1 intermediate layer and 2 solid layers before the print starts. In practice, it looks like this.
That is a big raft, but this thing works brilliantly. I absolutely can not vouch highly enough for this raft. With the super thick first lines it irons out issues of slightly uneven beds and adheres extremely strongly. The edges will never curl on stages 3, 4 or 5 and the solid interface on 5 gives prints a really good base, considering it is rafted. Altering the separation will give you varying results, I like 0.14. The rafts just peel off. As the plastic cools when a print is finished, the thick base lines shrink enough and the raft just pops off. I can literally breathe on a finished print and knock it off the print bed, despite it being anchored very firmly during printing.
Its large, its slow and uses a lot of material. Why would people want that? To me, its simple. It just works so reliably.
A very large issue that 3D printer users have is bed adhesion, this is probably the #1 problem actually that plagues desktop printers. You can have the worlds most perfectly flat bed, but what if your kapton has a bubble? What if you cracked your glass on the last big print you did? What if you really don’t like making ABS slurry?
Rafts are normally problematic because they themselves arent guaranteed to print correctly and they can often be a pain to remove from the print bed and the actual part, ruining them. S3D’s rafts are brilliant, the best I have ever seen. I am so confident in them, I very regularly start prints and don’t even look at them until they are done. Seriously, I press print, go and play some video games, forget about the printer, come back later in the afternoon and the print is done and I repeat.
Further to this, I sometimes don’t even use glue, hairspray or anything. I just print straight on kapton or tape without any adhesion, without any supervision whatsoever, I dont’ even wait for the nozzle the heat up, I just let it print. This is because of how amazing the rafts are.
If any 3D printing users out there have trouble with first layer adhesion and it is driving you mad, I strongly recommend you look into S3D if not purely for the raft function.
The infil settings are fairly typical with various types that are common in other 3D printing programs so linear, hexagonal or even the ‘vase’ mode with no infil and the part is created with a single wall thickness with no defined layer transitions, just slowly raising as it completes each perimeter.
One particular issue I have with the infil though is the transition between roofs to walls. Again, I would very much appreciate a response from S3D on whether they ever plan to fix this. This issue has forced me to use other slicers when I absolutely need this feature.
I will use this piece as an example.
When S3D slices, this, the transition between the roof layer to the horizontal walls simply prints the walls on top of the infil like this.
This is very weak point in the print. The infil transitioned directly into the wall which will cause this piece to snap quite easily at that joint. Look at how Slic3r and Makerware handle this.
It builds a few layers of solid interface before the wall begins. This can make a big difference in part strength.
Now that I have torn into the infil issues for long enough, it is time to get into the big reason why S3D is so good, the support settings. This is entirely separate from the manual/automatic support generation which is more of a print-preview, this is regarding how the supports actually perform.
S3D gives you a plethora of easy-to-use support settings which actually make an extremely big difference in print quality. As before, first I manually generated the support to quickly make sure it was in the right place, now I alter these settings to get the perfect support structure I want. The software is also known for the supports being extremely easy to remove and this I can vouch for. With some changes to the default settings you can make supports just pop off, even when printing PLA it is amazing how well the supports come off the print leaving no marks at all.
Even though I manually set the support earlier at 4mm which is a very quick and easy setting that doesn’t use much material or take long to make, I can now further edit that with the support infil %. I might not want support everywhere which is why I set it to 4mm, but where the support actually is, I want it to be dense. This however is a universal setting that I cant just change for different areas of the print, that would probably be extremely difficult to program. Ill show this with a few examples.
First is a 4mm universal support at a low % like 15% compared to high density on the right at 40%.
This enables users to compare the difference in support density. The thing here, is that all slicers can do this, what’s special about S3D? Well from early on, its the speed. I slice this fairly large piece in a little over 10 seconds (not including the export to a file, which is the other 5). I can quickly change the support and print preview this 4 times in a minute.
From here, I can change the infil direction easy which is nothing special, but the dense infil before the model begins is another really great feature. What is really useful is that I can set an extremely low support density of 10%, crosshatch it so it has a high amount of stability across any height and then apply dense support layers before the part begins.
I would personally be very confident in this model printing extremely well while cutting down the support used drastically. In fact, using this 10%, crosshatch 2-dense layer support method I have cut the print time down by over 10%, using 10% less plastic. Further to that, this support is extremely easy to remove as it is so low density, it is only high density where it contacts with the part but the support dense layers fuse to the supports much stronger than the actual printed part, they still fall off easily with the supports.
Again, I understand that other slicers are capable of doing this but the sheer speed and ease this program operates at can not be underestimated. I will show another example, how do you think you might be able to handle this? This particular piece failed on a Stratasys Fortus, but S3D can handle it beautifully.
This is a piece I did last year for a student. What an absolute nightmare. How is it even possible to remove the supports without breaking this thing? It is only a few centimetres long.
This is how S3D handles it without any issue, and this is why the software blows away the competition when it comes to complex prints. Firstly, we aren’t going to bother with automatic supports because like any software, it does this and there is now way we are getting the supports out.
Instead, ill go straight to manual support and I will put it only every few mm like this.
These tiny columns support only where needed and print very thin structures. I can easily poke these out with a toothpick and they just fall off.
That’s how it prints, and this is how it looks. The print on the left was made using a Stratasys Fortus 250MC, almost $100,000 and using soluble supports. The print on the right done in one shot was using a Printrbot Simple Metal.
The ability to manually put supports where I want them and be so easily removed is such an amazing feature. This, along with the rafts, are S3Ds greatest strengths. Even when printing in PLA, supports come off super easily. You can print preview in mere seconds to make sure they are wear you want, put solid supports somewhere and weaker ones elsewhere. If you ever print complex parts that use supports, I recommend this highly. Sometimes I don’t even use tools, I just pull the supports off prints with my bare hands. They come off in one shot smoothly.
Lastly of course, why have I not mentioned the print quality?
Because well, theres nothing to discuss. It is consistently great. There are so many settings that you can tweak to get great prints on open source slicers that you can match the quality of S3D prints. The difference is how fast and how easily S3D will generate code to give you a perfect print with absolutely minimal fuss. I printed this on my first attempt using S3D, the quality is just always very high. My website and facebook page is full of examples of large prints where you can see the quality of it.
That’s about all I can really talk about when reviewing this software. At a face value all it really offers over other softwares is its support and raft generation. But maybe you don’t print complex parts often or you never need a raft because you find ABS slurry on glass sticks brilliantly. For everyone else though, S3D is super reliable. I almost never have to worry about bed adhesion or supports. To me, $149 buys me peace of mind knowing that I don’t need to worry about my prints having first layer issues or the supports being hard to remove. More than anything though it buys me time. From the time spent slicing, print previewing and exporting a model which can save me minutes for every single print, to the fact that I literally don’t need to waste a single second watching the first layer go down or even watch the print at all, this is worth a lot.
Then there is the amount of money saved through not having so many failed prints. When I don’t have first layer problems and I print highly complex parts first time without much issue, I save a lot of money. I remember spending over a year on Makerware and some time with Slic3r as well. I know the sheer volume of plastic wasted on failed prints. Since I routinely print very large pieces and highly complex things, this added up fast.
If you value your time and want a highly reliable slicer, I cant recommend this software enough. The ability to slice and prepare a complex print in mere seconds, put it in my printer and go to more fun things with my life instead of stare at the first layer for 20 minutes is worth $149 in an instant. When you print as much as I do, that adds up to literally hours per day that I am saving by not having to worry about monitoring my prints so often.
To the S3D team though, I sincerely hope you read my complaints with your software. If you fix the issues I highlighted here, your software would be perfect. I don’t care if you offer a trial period or not, I just want to rely on it every time. The fact that I have to go to an open source program to print something as simple as that bolt that I described, is a notable flaw.