This is an older, archived post. Comments have been closed.
In Part One of this Journal I wrote about my decision to order a Leapfrog Creatr HS to replace the MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation I’d sent back after 3 months of problems. In this part I compare the specs of both 3D printers and write about my expectations. So keep in mind that this post based on actual user experience with the MakerBot but not of the Leapfrog. I’ll write a review of the Creatr HS when it arrives to see of the expectations in this post became reality.
Comparing the Specs
Everybody knows that on-paper specs say very little about the actual performance and quality of a device but it’s a good starting point for setting expectations. I’ll cover some of the important parts of both 3D printers.
Like I said in my last post I needed a printer that could at least print an iPad Casing that’s 25 cm in length. I never got to printing really big stuff with the Replicator, but I never experienced it as being too small for any print I had in mind. However I did realize quickly that a large build plate is also very efficient for printing multiple things at the same time. Either multiple copies of the same object or different objects in the same color. So bigger would be better for me. Let’s take a look at the sizes of both printers. I’ve also included the sizes of the printers itself because I thought that the Replicator was rather big compared to it’s build plate.
Printer Size: 52,8 x 44,1 x 41 cm
Build Volume: 25,2 x 19,9 x 15 cm
Printer Size: 60 x 50 x 50 cm
Build Volume: (single extruder print)
27 x 28 x 18 cm or 30 x 23 x 18 cm
As you can see the Creatr HS has two Build Volume specifications. This is because the room in the top-back corners of the printer is limited because of the external filament drive assemblies (more on that later). So when using the back part of the build plate, the extruders have to move between those assemblies. So depending on your print you can choose the rectangle area to reach the maximum length or the more square-like area for wider objects. Either way the Creatr HS’ bigger in all dimensions, except the height. So stranding objects can be 2,5 cm higher on the Replicator. For my purposes height is less important than the platform dimensions. When using both extruders the width of the build area is reduced by 2 cm.
Apart from the size of the platform there are other differences as well. First of all the Creatr HS’ platform is supported by 3 large lead screws. The Replicator’s build plate is suspended in the air hanging from just one lead screw and two passive rods close to each other in the back. I found that the build plate is very wobbly, especially because the Replicators glass pane is mounted in a removable plastic frame that can be slided out of yet another plastic assembly. This takes some force and it’s easy to unlevel the build plate that way. And although I guess MakerBot tested the strength of the build plate I think it’s plastic construction isn’t very durable. The plastic frame also has an edge that’s higher than the actual glass, making it hard to reach objects on the edge of the glass in case they need to be removed with a special tool like a putty knife.
Calibrating – or Leveling / Tramming – the Replicator is designed to be straightforward because plate distance is measured by the Smart Extruder and on-screens instructions guide the leveling process that uses only two knobs. But as you might have read in my Replicator 5th Gen review this didn’t work as advertised on both printers I used and because it has no manual leveling option, this renders the printer useless. And because of the removable plate and plastic assemblies I expect that the Replicator has to be re-leveled on a regular base to prevent inconsistent prints and extruder cloggs. The Creatr HS’s glass platform is mounted on a metal plate. I’ve yet to find out how it can be calibrated but judging the manual of the original Creatr it’s done the way most 3D printers do it: sending the extruder to certain parts of the plate, using a piece of paper to check the distance and adjust the spring-loaded screws accordingly. This surely doesn’t sound as high-tec and less accurate as the Replicator’s measuring-procedure, but there’s a lot less room voor both mechanical and electronical errors when using a sheet of paper.
One of the biggest practical differences between the build plates of these two printers is that the one on the Creatr HS is heated. MakerBot thinks that PLA will stick perfectly onto a glass plate with some blue tape. But I found out that wasn’t the case. Firstly prints get loose from the build plate sometimes resulting in pieces of abstract art – and remember this is a printer that takes a few minutes of your precious time to calibrate the plate distance before every print. Secondly I found that although PLA tends to be less prone to warping it does just that – especially when printing rectangle shapes like the stand in the image below. On the Replicator I tried the supplied blue tape sheets, glue stick and BuildTak but didn’t get my prints to stick consistently: sometimes they were very loose and other times they were almost impossible to remove.
The heated bed of the Creatr HS is supposed to be covered with a so called “print sticker” of which a few are supplied and 25 more can be bought for €29 (ex VAT). I guess these are just self-adhesive sheets containing the chemical that reacts with the filament that’s also in glue sticks, hair spray and blue tape. I’ve yet to discover how this works in practice and how long they last. More than €1 for a simple sheet is quite expensive in my opinion – especially because they’re A4-size and thus smaller than the build plate. Judging the product page these “print sheets” are actually Avery A4 self-adhesive laminating sheets which are a lot cheaper at Staples. I’ll report back on that when my printer arrives.
To be honest both MakerBot’s blue tape sheets and Leapfrog’s print stickers still feel like something from the early days of 3D printing. Both are just overpriced Home/OfficeDepot products and have to be replaced regularly. Although I tried the BuildTak for just a few days on the Replicator, it looked and felt substantial and professional. It’s €18 for one sheet but I expect it to be much more durable. I’m also keeping track of the progress of the GeckoTek build plate that’s now on Kickstarter. The Creatr isn’t yet listed but a Gecko plate on a Leapfrog printer sound like a great match.
About the size of the printers themselves: Although MakerBot calls it printer the “Replicator Desktop 3D printer” you have to have a very large desk and noise canceling earplugs if you want to do any mental work while it’s printing. The Creatr HS is even bigger – twice as deep (60cm) as it’s maximum print length (30cm). I have only heard an original Creatr printing and that one seemed a little less loud than the Replicator but loud nonetheless. I don’t expect the HS to be silent but I do expect it to be a little less loud because of the lighter extruder. And while we’re at that subject…
Extruders, Materials & Speed
The extruders on these two 3D printers are very different. The first thing of course is the amount: the Replicator 5th Generation is a single-extruder printer and the Leapfrog Creatr HS has a dual-extruder system allowing prints with two colors or two materials at the same time.
But that’s just the beginning. The 5th Gen has a totally new kind of extruder concept: it’s detachable and “smart”. The advantage of a detachable extruder is that it’s easy to replace. And as you might have read in my Replicator 5th Gen Review that came in handy when it indeed needed replacing – 5 times under warranty (out of warranty they’re around €350!). “Smart” applies to the extruder being able to detect when the printer is out of filament and pausing the print process accordingly. Like said before it’s also used to measure the distance to the build plate. My main problem with it was that MakerBot doesn’t allow the end user to open the extruder to perform maintenance tasks such as clog removal. The cooling mechanism is located on the part of the assembly that permanently attached to the printer. This part also contains an LED that lights the print and is an indicator for the Assisted Leveling routine. Though the extruder seems to be perfectly capable to use with other materials the printer is designed to be PLA-only since it hasn’t got a heated print bed.
One very unpractical I discovered while using the Replicator is the placement of the nozzle: the image on the right shows the back of the extruder assembly and the Smart Extruder itself but as a user you can only see it from the opposite side, like in the first image at the top of this article. As you can see this places the nozzle about 5cm away from the large black assembly. This makes it very hard to see what the printer is actually doing – especially when it’s printing the crucial first layers of the print.
As opposed to the Replicator 5th Gen’s “direct-drive” extruder that places the gears that push the filament through on top of the extruder itself the Creatr HS uses a Bowden-style extruder. This means the gears are located on a static part of the printer and the filament is pushed through a tube into the extruder. In theory this saves a lot of weight – especially with dual extruders. This should lead to higher speeds (thus the “HS” in the name) and less vibrations making the printer more silent and accurate. I can’t wait to see and hear this in action and will report on back with my actual findings on this subject.
The Creatr HS supports printing with many materials: PLA, ABS, PVA, Nylon, Brickplastic and Woodplatic to name the ones that are currently listed on the website. The dual extruder of course allows printing with two colors but like I wrote in Part One of this Journal I’m especially excited about being able to print in PLA with water-soluble PVA supports.
Speedwise standard profiles of the Replicator where set-up at 90mm/s. The Creatr HS has a maximum speed of 300mm/s but I’m very curious to the speed in their standard profiles. My expectation of this is pretty high because speed is the main USP. But maximum speeds isn’t really a useful spec for a 3D printer – it’s the acceleration and deceleration that makes a difference in print times. The maximum speed can only be reached in a straight line, just like a car. But less mass also means the extruder can get to speed and “brake” in a shorter amount of time while staying accurate. But 3D printing is just partially a mechanical process. It’s also a chemical reaction: a faster speeds means the filament has to be melted faster before going through the nozzle and cool faster to have good adhesion to the print bed. I expect the printing speeds to be pre-configured to at least 200 mm/s to deserve the “HS” name.
Opposite to the nozzle of the Replicator thats at the back of the assembly and almost invisible to the user Leapfrog has put the nozzles of the HS at the front. They also told me that not only the extruder uses active cooling to keep the temperature stable but it also actively cools the just-printed filament for optimal adhesion and accuracy.
Interface and User Experience
I wrote in part one of this Journal that it’s important for me to have a stand-alone printer. The 5th Gen Replicator and the Creatr HS use the same configuration of a large full-color LCD display, a dial and a USB port. But when it comes to user friendliness the interface design is just as important than the physical layout. I think this is even more important than a few years back when consumer 3D printers where mainly used by tinkerers. I think that today’s offerings will increasingly attract designers, architects and the like – people that can really appreciate good user interface (UI) design and great user experiences (UX) in general. I dare to say that good UI/UX design is hard – especially for companies that used to be focussed on mechanical design only. Let’s compare the two screens:
I did like the Control Panel of the Replicator a lot. It’s clear that MakerBot has put a lot of effort in designing both the panel itself and the user interface. The USB port is located right of the big dial that is used to navigate the menus. Making a selection is done by pressing the dial. The panel also features two secondary buttons next to the screen. The one on the top is either a back-button or a dedicated print-cancel button and the one on the bottom opens a contextual menu. What’s also nice is that the dial has an LED ring around it that changes color depending on what the printer is doing. Red while heating or blinking blue when you need to approve a print job.
MakerBot’s interface is very well designed with nice icons and menu’s that are easy to understand and navigate. One thing that I found really handy is that every print file contains a thumbnail of the 3D model rendered in blue like they do on Thingiverse. This comes in handy when a once clear filename becomes a riddle when you want to re-print a file from the USB stick months later. The file info also displays all info about the print job like the remaining time and amount of filament needed. While printing the display shows the progress of the print in percentages and the estimated remaining time. By turning the dial you can also see the other details of the print and the extruder real-time temperature readout. After the print it show you how long it took and – in later firmwares – asks if you want to print the same job again.
All necessary actions like preheating, loading and unloading filament and the assisted leveling feature mentioned earlier can be done on the machine. So the Control Panel of the Replicator makes it a completely standalone printer. On top of that the printer can be connected to the internet either wired or wireless and the display allows you to print files that you’ve saved to your MakerBot Cloud Storage or Thingiverse. I liked the idea of this but in practice I only used it once to test it because I want fine control over how my files are sliced and placed on the build plate and usually preview the print process before I actually start it. Maybe it’s handy for small things and objects you print often, but for new designs that will take hours to print I want to make sure I checked everything in detail.
Let’s continue with the Control Panel of the Leapfrog Creatr HS. Apart from the new extruder this is the biggest new feature compared to the original Creatr. It looks like this:
As you know I haven’t received my Creatr HS yet so this is strictly an analysis of the photos to set my expectations. At first the set-up seems similar to that of the Replicator 5th Gen: USB port, Full-Color LCD and a shiny Dial. But the big difference seems to be the absence of secondary action buttons which give me the feeling that the Control Panel’s functionality won’t be as extensive as the MakerBot’s interface.
The big icons clearly indicate the ability to pre-heat the bed and extruders, load or unload filament and navigate the USB drive for print files. Not sure about the small icons on top. My best guess would be that they’re temperature indicators of the extruders and the print bed. This of course covers the basic functions and since the Creatr HS has no network connectivity there’s no reel need for deeper menus. I’m very curious to the actual functionality and menus of this printer. Does it have a pause and print-again function? Does it show a thumbnail of the printed objects? I’ll find out when it arrives in a few weeks and report back on this subject!
I think I covered the most important specs of both printers and made my expectation clear. But – like most technology today – 3D Printers have two factors that can make or break it: the Hardware of the printer itself and the Software that’s used to prepare the 3D files and generate the gcode that tells the printer what to do.
In the previous part of this Journal I wrote I have high expectations of the Simplify3D software that’s included with the Creatr HS. I already have received the software so I can experiment it while waiting for the printer to arrive. So in the next part I will review Simplify3D and compare it to the MakerBot Desktop software that came with the Replicator 5th Gen.