Understanding firmware

What is firmware? What does it do? In this article, we'll clear things up and explain how firmware operates inside your Ultimaker printer and how to update it. Let's get started!

What is firmware?

To understand the difference between Ultimaker 2 and Ultimaker 3 firmware, you first need to understand what firmware actually is. Quite simply, it’s a computer code – just like Cura. Or Windows, Android, Microsoft Word, Chrome, iTunes or Whatsapp, for that matter!

However, unlike those examples, firmware is highly specialized, as it’s a computer code designed to ensure specific machine functions – in this case, a 3D printer. Firmware is stored inside the machine (within a special computer) and it controls the motors, the screen, the brightness of the lights, even the hot-end temperatures – all while executing a print. Without firmware, Ultimaker’s machines wouldn’t be much more use than a piece of stone.

Cura vs firmware

Cura and firmware are closely related but operate in very different ways. Cura takes input from the user in the form of a 3D model. It then converts this into a set of instructions for the machine. The firmware then uses these instructions to print the final 3D model.

CAD → 3D model → Cura → G-code → [transfer to machine] → Firmware → Actual object

Ultimaker Original and Ultimaker 2

The Ultimaker Original and Ultimaker 2 are both similar, in that they have the same tiny computer – and they perform almost the same tasks. The Ultimaker 2’s firmware is simply an improved version of the Ultimaker Original, with a better user flow.

The tiny computer in the Ultimaker Original and Ultimaker 2 isn’t actually that fast. It has about the same computer power as a 1st-generation Gameboy, which is quite limited. There’s no room for advanced features like Wi-Fi, or for storing print jobs on the printer itself.

It’s important to know that it has:

  • Limited connectivity (USB cable and SD)

  • No self-update mechanism

  • No internal storage to keep files

  • Limits to what it can do

Updating this firmware

Due to the limited connectivity, lack of internal storage and no self-update mechanisms, updating must be done manually, using an external cable and Cura. You can check out this guide for more details.


Ultimaker 3

The Ultimaker 3’s tiny computer is faster, better and stronger – in fact, it’s virtually the equivalent of a modern smartphone. This has enabled us to add features like Wi-Fi, cabled network, USB, and a camera.

We can even reach the Internet from the Ultimaker 3 – this firmware really does move the technology to whole new levels. There’s now room for storage, web interfaces, extra files, and even additional applications. Check out this article for a more extensive overview of its new features.

The first noticeable benefit of this is that we now have logs, which help our developers fix issues faster. However, we’re nowhere near the limits of what we can achieve here, and the future’s looking bright. We’ve only just begun to explore our options.

Updating the firmware on Ultimaker 3

The improvements mean that Ultimaker 3 doesn’t depend on Cura to update the firmware, and can auto-update itself. It can even download the firmware from the Internet where available. Alternatively, you can manually download the update off-site and install via a USB drive. You can find the step-by-step instructions in this guide.


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