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In Part 1 of this review I was positively surprised about the fact that it took me 20 minutes to unpack the Big Builder Dual Feed 3D Printer, install it and make my first print from the SD Card. Now that I’ve been printing with it daily for 3 weeks, I’ll report on the ease of use, print quality, creative possibilities of this 3D printer and the few minor problems I encountered with it.
Let’s not bury the lead: this was the first printer I tested that printed reliably, with little to no tinkering out of the box and has been doing so for 3 weeks straight. That’s worth something on itself, but let’s get to the details!
Preparing the Build Plate
Like I wrote in Part 1, I was surprised about the roll of regular yellow painter’s tape that was included in the box. Up until now I’ve only used and read about blue painter’s tape as a 3D printing surface. I used the supplied blue tape sheets for my MakerBot Replicator 5th Gen Review, but that sometimes lead to adhesion that was so strong that print removal required a lot of force. For my Leapfrog Creatr Review I used the supplied self-adhesive semi-transparant inkjet labels – a.k.a. print sheets – which worked perfectly but where a little hard to apply without air bubbles and left sticker residue after removing, requiring cleaning the build plate with chemicals. I’ve been using the plain painter’s tape for all my prints on the Builder Dual Feed and found it had the right balance between adhesion and print removability. Plus it’s dirt cheap and – unlike the blue tape – available in wide rolls in all hardware stores here in The Netherlands. Removing the tape leaves no residue and application is easy because of the removable build plate: I just applied a few lines of tape longer than the build plate, flipped the plate over and cut-off the remains with an x-acto knife.
Leveling the build plate is done manually by turning the 4 screws under the build plate. There’s a bed leveling gcode on the SD card that let’s you adjust the screws while printing. I have no problems with this, but I think that requires some 3D printing experience to do right. The Builder doesn’t have an option to run an assisted leveling command from the on-board menu. Some 3D printers do have this simple feature that just sends the extruder to different areas of the build plate, so you can put a piece of paper in between the nozzle and the glass and turn the screws until the resistance while moving the paper is consistent on all points. Other 3D printers go a step further and offer automatic calibration features. The printer came greatly calibrated out of the box so I had no leveling-related issues with it, but when the build plate needs re-leveling after a period of use, some electronic assistance would be helpful, especially for first-time 3D printer users.
Update April 2015
I’ve recently tested the Optional Heated Bed as well. Read about it in my Review Update.
Preparing the Extruders
Again, like I wrote in Part 1 loading filament is a completely manual procedure: press down the spring-loaded levers and push the filament through the hole until it comes out of the nozzle. This works fine and I never had to straighten the filament to get it into the hot end. However, it would have been nice if the menu on the control screen offered a filament extrusion command as well. This way it would be easier to flush the extruders with new filament until the old color is completely gone.
Loading files from the SD card can be done through the menu. I have no clue what the criteria are for the order the files are displayed in: it seems completely random. It would have been practical to list them in either alphabetic order or based on creation date. The display also limits the amount of characters, so you have to choose the first characters of your filenames wisely. Anyway, you don’t want to keep hundreds of files on the SD cards as an archive.
3D Printing with one color
Of course a dual extrusion printer can also print with just one color, but unlike other printers with two nozzles, the Builder requires both extruders to be loaded with filament, also when just using one. This is to prevent the filament from going up again through the other input. It’s not really an issue to load the other extruder as well with the easy filament loading system of the Builder. However, I would advice to load the second extruder with the same color as the first one when printing with one color and prime both extruders well to remove any leftover colors from an earlier print from the channels. I advise this because a few single-color prints I did had a few spots off the color on the surface. This is most notable with contrasting colors like the left Terminator skull below (black spot on top) which I was printing in white while the second extruder was still loaded with black.
And while we’re looking at the Terminator, let’s talk a bit about print speed. The Builder has a maximum speed of 80 mm/s but the 40-60 mm/s range is what you want to use for most quality prints. I did the left Terminator Skull at 80 mm/s – the (Big) Builder Dual Feed’s advertised maximum speed (the single extruder version is faster by the way, read about this in de last paragraph of this review). The skull on the right is printed with the MakerBot Replicator 5th gen at 90 mm/s. Clearly a Dual Direct Drive Extruder is too heavy to operate at these speeds. Both are printed hollow with 3 perimeter shells at 200 micron. While the Builder did a better job at the printing the hydraulics in the jaw (the one from the Rep 5 was clipped of because it was messed up), the surface is less smooth. You can see the surface has small blobs on it. Luckily, those blobs disappear completely when slowing down the printer to around 50 mm/s. At that speed, the printer is very capable of printing small, detailed things:
3D Printing with two completely separate colors
As I encountered with the Leapfrog Creatr in my previous reviews, one of the biggest problems with dual extrusion 3D printing is filament oozing. When having two nozzles, the second nozzle has the tendency to release some molten filament while idle. These small strands of filament can easily ruin the print.
Because of the single nozzle on the Builder, there’s never an idle one: when switching colors the printer seamlessly switches the motor of the first extruder off and the second extruder on. This way there’s no interruption in the filament flow. There is, however, a small amount of filament in between that is a mixed color. So when switching from yellow to red, there will be a few millimeters of orange in your print as well.
Luckily there’s an easy solution for this if you won’t like the effect and want completely isolated colors: it’s a feature in the Cura software called the Wipe & Prime Tower. It’s just a single checkbox and when it’s selected the software will generate a small tower next to the print. When switching colors the printer will print a layer of the tower in the current color, followed by a layer in the next color so the in-between color is out of the system. This works remarkably well! I know that many readers are very curious to how my Dual Extrusion Batman design (available on Thingiverse) turned out, so lets reveal him:
Compared to the same print I made with the Creatr the differences are clear! The colors are nicely separated, even though the face is a very small part. The nose and chin would have been a little better ifI had used supports, so that’s my fault. The only thing I noticed is the mixed colors and lack of detail on top of the ears. I think the lack of detail is mainly due to the fact that Cura doesn’t have an option to decreasing the speed on very small layers, like Simplify3D does. So to get the ears right, the total print should be done slower. I’m not sure how to overcome the little bit of white in the ears. There’s a setting in Cura to increase the volume of the Wipe & Print Tower. I think that would have improved the result, but I didn’t have time to test this. But it must be noted that some print errors are easy to spot on a high res close-up, but are hardly visible to the human eye.
I must admit that being able to print with two colors this way is both enjoyable and creatively deliberating. Using two colors is a simple way to make even the simplest designs look better. I got so addicted to it, that I designed a series of Super Mario hangers to test all kinds of color combinations. While printing them I discovered a few things about the Big Builder Dual Feed & Cura:
This is the way a Super Mario mushroom is supposed to look: with two separate colors! This design needs support structure for the green/red part, but I discovered that Cura’s default Grid-style support and vertical distance from the print resulted in an hard-to-remove solid support. By switching the support type to Line in the expert settings and setting the vertical distance to 0,25mm, they became easily removable and faster to print. As with Batman, you can see that the colors tend to mix on the small part on top. Also, the right mushroom does have a little red PLA bleed through the white. This can be reduced by increasing the volume of the Wipe & Prime Tower.
One problem I noticed with two-color printing is that there’s a little inconsistency in the print on the point where the extruder moves between the print and the wipe & prime tower. As you can see in the image above, it sometimes drags a piece of filament with it, which could land on the print. This problem occurs because Cura unfortunately doesn’t insert a retraction command when moving from and to the tower. You can clearly see this on the tower itself, which always has some strings on one side. It’s good practice to orient a design with it’s least-imporant side towards the left-back corner. I also discovered that these effects can be reduced a little by lowering the print temperature & travel speed and putting a small object (a separate cube or disc) in the back-right corner of your actual object to increase the distance at which Cura generates the Wipe & Prime Tower. But for some designs – especially with contrasting colors like the one below – I wasn’t able to get perfect results. I hope someone will add retraction to and from the tower in Cura – that’s what open source is about, right?
You might wonder why I chose to print the small black disc in the picture above. It turns out that Cura needs some geometry for both colors on the first layer to generate the Wipe & Prime Tower correctly. I guess this is a bug, because when I left the disc out it would print each layer of the tower multiple times at the same layer height, messing it up completely. The disc wasn’t necessary for the mushroom, because the first layer contained the white of the base and the green of the support.
In the end the Wipe & Prime Tower option works fine in most cases, but could really benefit from a smart update. On top of the two things above, I also don’t understand why it will always print a layer of every color on the tower, even though one of those colors isn’t needed for many layers to come.
While printing the question block above I encountered another problem. This time it was hardware related. As you can see in the image below, the layers didn’t print consistently, leaving the print filled with holes. Because of the quick reply from Builder’s support I learned that the spring loaders were probably set too loose, allowing the extruder gears to grind the filament instead of moving it.
Opening the extruder is as easy as removing one single pin from the spring-loaded levers and removing those levers from the carriage. As you can see in the picture above the left gear got a little bit of molten orange filament on it and the right one is completely covered in ground white filament. It was relatively easy to remove: I used a needle to clear the big parts of and a toothbrush to make the gears totally clean – brushing teeth, literally. As with loading the filament, it would have been nice if the menu offered a way to let the gears rotate so you can clean it all around. As a work-around I just started a small print to reach the same effect.
After putting the levers back on, I gave the allen screws on top of them a few turns to tighten the springs. This way the gears have more grip onto the filament and I never had problems with grinding since.
At the same moment after the grinding a piece of filament ended up blocking the hot end entrance, so I had to use the pressure plug to push it down. I actually heated the plug inside the other hot end before being able to push the filament down. Worked as advertised and I could continue printing within minutes.
Overall I like the way the extruder is easily accessible, as long as you have a chair to stand on since the printer is very tall.
It must be noted that creating dual-extrusion-ready 3D models or adapting existing models for dual extrusion requires professional 3D modeling software and skills to operate them. The Cura software requires a separate STL file for each color, so you have to know or learn how to split 3D geometry and make the two parts volumetric. I used Cinema4D to create the dual extrusion models.
Although I haven’t tested it, there also seems to be a “dirty way” of creating multiple colors on a single model. For this you can download and install a free plugin for Cura called SwitchExtruderAtZ. It is, however, limited to vertical striping, like on a traffic cone.
3D Printing with Color Mixing
Aside from the ability to print two colors separately, the Big Builder Dual Feed (and his smaller brother) have the ability to mix the two inserted colors of PLA plastic with any given ratio. As with paint, some colors mix nicer than others and the manufacturer told me that mixing results can also vary between brands, but the basic idea is simple: insert yellow and red and you can create any shade of orange
The ratio is set on the machine itself. I would advise to print a skirt that is big enough or has enough lines to give you the time to set the ratio on the control panel and allowing the in-between color to be purged from the nozzle.
From a creative professional’s point of view this is an incredibly handy feature, because you’re not limited to the colors you have on spools anymore. Theoretically, if this machine had 3 inputs instead of 2, you could create almost every color with cyan, magenta and yellow filament, just like a normal color printer does. But having a dozen of colors and two inputs allows the mixing of countless colors as well.
You can change the ratio on the machine at any moment while printing. This allows for some almost-analogue, DJ-style creative expression in 3D printing. While it’s not realistic for multi-hour prints, it does allow you to create one-of-a-kind prints of small things.
If you don’t feel like creating 3D-Printed Pop Art, but do like to play with colors, you can also pre-program gradients with the online Color Mixing Tool. The tool needs a pre-slices gcode file, so first you need to prepare your model in Cura as a single-color print. There interface is pretty straight forward: the top slider set’s the ratio between the two color at the top of the print and the bottom slider sets the bottom ratio. The tool then generates all in-between ratios and inserts those into the gcode file, which can be downloaded within a few seconds to a minute, depending on the file size and speed of your internet connection.
Although an activation code for the Color Mixing Tool has to be purchased separately for €50, it works as advertised and creates some very interesting results. As you can see in the image below, a gradient can create a dramatic effect that easily sets the result apart form a single-colored 3D print.
While this effect is already great, from a designer’s point of view just having an A-to-B-gradient feels like working in Microsoft Paint. It’s not hard to imagine the effects that can be created with a dynamic multi-point gradient, that allows an unlimited amount of ratios to be pre-programmed from top to bottom, similar to gradient creation in software like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. A looping function to create repeating patterns and a way to save these patterns as presets should all be possible. One thing to note is that start and end point of the tool result in a 15-85 % and 85-15 % ratio, so it’s not possible to go from 0 to 100 %.
I hope the Color Mixing Tool will be updated in the future. If they would also let you select which two colors you’re using it would be a great way to preview the result.
3D Printing Tall Objects
Although unique selling point of the Big Builder compared to it’s smaller brother is – of course – the fact that it’s big, I would rather call it tall. This is because compared to it’s enormous print height of 66,5 cm the build plate is relatively small at 21 x 22 mm. I discovered that there aren’t many objects that can fully benefit from this width-to-height-ratio of around 1:3. Apart from the designs I’ve seen at Builder’s HQ, like a vase, giant beer bottle, human statue and sky scraper, I found it hard to think of other things.
After some research I discovered that most tall things have a width-to-height-ratio of 1:2. This is true for many upstanding animals, lamps, most vases and most many buildings as well. For instance I tried the Eiffel Tower model below and the maximum height was 45cm before it was getting to big for the build plate.
It should be noted that the Eiffel Tower above was not a test print for quality but for speed, which brings us to the second “problem” with 3D printing very tall things. With reasonable settings to get a quality print, the Eiffel Tower would have taken around 30 hours to print. Because of all my different color experiments, I didn’t have time left to wait for that, so I instead maxed the print speed and printed at 300 micron layer height with 10% infill. That still took around 17 hours. I must say that the result after a little cleanup is not that bad. You can compare this to a low-res version JPG version of a poster-design or a 3D animation rendered without anti-aliasing turned on. It’s a good way to preview and check for size, but you can’t sell it or display it. For that, you really have to wait and hope that nothing goes wrong.
Planning for print time actually isn’t that really that different from working with 2D printers or when producing 3D animations like we do at our Animation Marketing Studio: When you have done multiple projects you can make a good estimate on how long it will take to create an animation and how long it will take your computer to render it – and avoid clients that “need it yesterday” accordingly. However, the difference with the virtual rendering of 3D animations and the physical rendering of 3D prints is that with the former you can continue a render that has failed, so you only have to do the remaining part. A 3D print that fails, is just a failed 3D print.
I experienced this with my first big quality 3D print: a 40cm high version of the famous owl statue that is used a lot to test print quality. I wanted to go al the way, so I also ran the gcode through the Color Mixing Tool to give the owl a red-to-yellow-gradient. It was estimated to take around 30 hours. I started it before I went to sleep, but in the morning, something looked not right:
I must admit the result – which is a mix of 20% yellow PLA and 80% air – looks like art, but it wasn’t intended of course. I quickly discovered that the problem wasn’t extruder-related: nothing was jammed. What happened is the red filament broke off during printing. I’m not perfectly sure why it broke, but the location was between the filament spool and the clip that feeds the filament into the tube. I think its a combination of the relatively brittle PLA and the design of the 3D-printed filament clip and tube. These fit a 1.75mm strand of filament perfectly, but the clip causes a little resistance and the edges of the feeding hole might be a little sharp. Maybe a slightly bigger, beveled hole would reduce the risk of filament breaking.
Because the red PLA broke 2 times in a row, I decided to go for a completely pink owl. This time I had no breaks or any other problems. It took a total of 28 hours and 19 minutes to finish at 60 mm/s and 200 micron layer height. But the result is totally worth the wait:
I’m not a big fan of 3D prints with a single perimeter shell. This is done often with vases or other decorative objects and though it saves a lot on printing time (the Gradient vase took “just” 9 hours) these prints generally aren’t very strong and can easily be broken. So I printed the owl completely hollow to save time, but with 3 perimeter shells resulting in a shell of about 1,2 mm thick. The result is very strong and it would even allow me to make a hole in the bottom, stick a LED light in it and make it into a lamp for a little girl’s bedroom (that was my plan, but looking at it I think the owl is a little to scary for children). Below is a close-up of the print that reveals that while the print quality is good, enlarging a 3D model to this size reveals the polygons it’s made of. In other words: printing big requires very high quality 3D models to get the best results.
The Builder Dual Feed is less loud than the Replicator or the Creatr. As with most 3D printers it does make a high-pitched servo motor sound while printing. I noticed most of the noise comes from the y-axis and that the x-axis moves almost silently. You won’t notice the z-axis wile printing, but when homing it’s a screamer. I wouldn’t put it on a desk when working besides it all day, but when it’s in another room you won’t notice it much, especially when the radio is on.
Like anything mechanical most 3D printer vibrate a little, especially while doing fast, short moves like infills. As you might expect from a printer this tall, these vibrations are somewhat amplified. Although I placed the Big Builder on a very solid bench, it shook quite noticeable. Especially when printing the owl, because that one got quite heavy while printing. However, this didn’t result in any real printing errors: every line was placed perfectly on top of the other. Experienced users will notice the “echoing” in some prints. Luckily there is a way to greatly reduce the vibrations: the Big Builder has to holes in the back plate, located near the top. These can be used to secure the printer to a wall, so the top can’t shake anymore. You would need something to put in-between the printer and the wall, though, because the power supply is also in the back. If the power cord and buttons had been on the side, the machine could be places flat against a wall, making it perfectly stable.
Display & Controls while Printing
While printing the display shows a lot of useful information, like the temperature and the mix-ratio between the two extruders (more on color mixing later). It also shows the percentage of the print progress and the amount of time it has been printing, but I really missed an indication of the remaining print time! I’m aware that this is often just an indication, but for me it’s actually the one important thing I want to know when 3D printing professionally, because I can plan around that.
It’s possible to change some settings while printing, like the speed (in percentages of the programmed speed) and the nozzle temperature. It’s also possible to pause and resume the print. More importantly, you can change the extruder mix-ratio while printing. This not only allows some realtime creative possibilities like I’ve showed earlier, but also allows you to print a single-color print with the second extruder, something that somehow isn’t a setting in Cura.
Dual Feed Downsides
By now you know that I really like the single-nozzle dual extrusion system of the Big Builder Dual Feed: it’s perfect for making dual color prints without oozing problems and being able to mix colors and create gradients offers unique looks. But before I conclude this review, let’s consider possible downsides compared to a traditional dual-nozzle system. One thing to consider is that dual-extrusion 3D printers are not just used for printing with two colors of the same material, in this case PLA. The benefits of two completely separate nozzles become clear when you want to print with two different materials. For instance, some people like to print with one main material and use another material to create dissolvable supports. For PLA prints, you could then use PVA to create support structures that dissolve in water. And for functional parts I’ve also read about people printing with ABS in combination with PLA supports, which are dissolvable in sodium hydroxide (don’t try that at home, by the way: dangerous stuff!). I’ve also read stories from people that have a 0,35 mm nozzle on one extruder for quality outlines and a 0,5 mm nozzle on the other extruder for fast infills and supports.
Reader Bart commented with a question about the possibility of printing PLA with PVA supports. After consulting with Builder support, he found out that it’s completely possible to print PLA with PVA supports, as long as they both print well the exact same temperature. So my point only holds for combining ABS with PLA supports, which I think not a lot op people actually do.
That being said, I’m confident that most Creative Professionals will be printing with PLA or PLA-composites (mixes of PLA with other plastics, or even wood or metal particles) and for decorative purposes and prototyping PLA-based filaments are currently the most versatile. I’ve only mixed PLA with PLA for this review – and I won’t advise mixing anything else – but if the machine was mine I think I couldn’t resist trying different blends. Think about the unique look of colored brick or wood prints… I can write about this for hours, but instead let’s finish this review!
The Big Builder Dual Feed is a reliable 3D printer: it has been printing for 3 weeks straight, without any problems after solving the filament grinding issue (which was easy to do) and the breaking of the filament (which happened only with the supplied red PLA), so I’m very positive about it. It’s the first 3D printer I’ve reviewed that has been printing more than I’ve been trying to get it to print.
This 3D printer doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles others have, like auto-calibration, network connectivity and decorative LED lighting. Instead it requires some manual work to load filament and level the bed. But I’ve experienced from earlier tests that printers that do have these features are useless if they don’t get the basics right. The Big Builder Dual Feed does get the basics right and it’s minimalistic approach might be the key to making it easy to understand, easy to operate and print consistently. It’s actually fun to use!
The extruder gears need to be cleaned fairly regularly, but that’s a quick job because the extruder assembly can be opened within seconds. Last-result tools to remove jams – like a pressure plug and a wire – are supplied, so it’s easy to get the printer going again in case some filament gets stuck.
The star of this printer is – without a doubt – the single-nozzle dual feed extruder. Being able to print designs with two completely distinct colors offers a lot of creative possibilities and creating gradients with the Color Mixing Tool adds a unique look to set 3D prints apart. This online tool works like advertised, but it should be developed beyond it’s ability to generate a single A-to-B gradient to really open the creative possibilities of this printer, and make it more worthy of the €50 price tag. The main software, Cura, however, is completely free. It works pretty well, but does contain some bugs. Cura has some nice unique features, like auto-generating a wipe & prime tower, but misses some helpful features, like manual support generation and per-layer control, that software like Simplify3D offers.
Making tall 3D prints is impressive, but you really have to plan for multi-day printing times. A little more speed would be great for this (more on this in the next paragraph). Also the 21 x 22 cm build plate is a little too small to benefit from the printer’s 66.5 cm tall build chamber. Most tall objects max out at 40-45 cm height. I would trade some height for extra width and height if there was an option – like 25 x 25 x 50 – because I discovered that most tall objects have a width-to-height ratio of 1:2.
Overal I liked printing with the Big Builder Dual feed a lot. The bright red industrial aesthetic might not appeal to all creative professionals, but it does offer a lot of creative possibilities with well-working dual extrusion. And for €2495 ex VAT (that’s €200 less than a desktop-size MakerBot Replicator 5th Gen) it gives you the extra headspace to print something big once in a while.
But before I finish, you might have one question:
Which Builder to choose?
The Builder line of 3D printers currently consists of 4 models, that are similar in many ways, but different in a few important details. Apart from price I listed build volume and print speed below:
€1238.84 Ex. VAT
10 – 200 mm/s
€1575 Ex. VAT
10 – 80 mm/s
€2295 Ex. VAT
10 – 150 mm/s
€2495 Ex. VAT
10 – 80 mm/s
When choosing between Builders, first thing you have to decide is the size. It’s nice to have the extra tall build volume, but when you’re planning to print small trinkets, toys and jewelry that are never taller than 16.4 cm, the desktop-sized Builder is a more obvious choice. In fact, when you wan’t to print a lot of small things professionally, you might even want to consider buying two desktop-sized Builders instead of one big one. That way you could print very efficiently.
If you do want to go beyond 16.4 cm of height, you will have to decide if you’re going to use two colors. The Color Mixing gradient does look great on things like vases, but if it’s purely size you’re after the Big Builder Mono offers almost double the maximum print speed, probably because the single-motor extruder is a little lighter.
So that’s something to consider. But I’m confident that you won’t regret buying either of those four 3D printers. And if you ever want to print materials that need a heated bed, this can be ordered separately. Batman, however, can only buy the desktop-sized Builder, because that one also “comes in black”.
Update April 2015
The manufacturer of the Builder 3D Printers recently updated it and also released a White Edition with LED Lights. I wrote a little Review Update about this version and also tested the Optional Heated Bed!