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Let me start by thanking everyone on for the many, many great responses and compliments on my earlier posts through E-mail, Twitter and Google+. Your feedback makes writing these in-depth user reviews worth it! And to that extend I’ve some good news and some bed news. The bad news (because I know most of you are eagerly awaiting my posts about it) is that the new Leapfrog Creatr HS – which I ordered in the first week of July and have been writing 3 anticipation posts about about – has been delayed. A representative let me know that I can expect it to arrive in the first week of September.
The good news is that they offered to let me use an original Creatr. This is nice because I can finally 3D print again after returning my MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation a month ago and because in a month I can compare that printer to both the Replicator and the Creatr HS. This makes for interesting writing because I’m very curious to what Leapfrog has improved with the Creatr HS compared to the original Creatr, that was received with mixed reviews.
Like I said in my MakerBot Replicator 5th Gen Review (I’ll refer to it as the Rep 5 from now on to keep things clean) I don’t think that anyone can write a thorough 3D Printer Review by toying with such a machine for a week. I’ve the Creatr up and running for a day now (although I got it 4 days ago – more on that later) so this post is just the introduction part to this Leapfrog Creatr Review covering installation and setup.
Allright, let’s dive into it!
Spoiler: If you liked reading about the flaws of the Rep 5 you will surely like this!
Price & Shipping Time
The Creatr is currently priced at €1249. The newly released Creatr HS costs €550 more, but be aware that that price includes the Simplify3D Software that I reviewed earlier worth €140 (all these prices exclude VAT). I really liked Simplify3D so that raises the question if the Creatr HS is worth the extra €410. I cannot tell you that for sure until I’ve tested both thoroughly, but if the Creatr HS is really 5 times faster than the Creatr and the onboard Control Panel with LCD works as advertised it’s easily worth the extra costs. But… the Creatr ships within 72 hours (I could pick mine up within the hour) and the Creatr HS is still a non-existing printer. I don’t know why it has been delayed and I have yet to see if Leapfrog can keep it’s promise of delivering it in the first week of September.
Printer Design, Unpacking & Installation
First I will take a look at the printer. The Creatr comes in a wooden shipping crate that – while looking substantial – is almost 1 meter tall. Luckily I picked mine up (I live and work a 40 minute drive from Leapfrog HQ) so I could leave the wooden crate there and just take the cardboard box with me in my car. The box just fitted through our tight hallway so the crate never would have. Leapfrog is very clear about how to unpack the printer without damaging it: you have to cut the sides of the box so you can lift the printer up from the bottom. The printer is so heavy that lifting it up from the aluminum top could damage the pre-calibrated hardware.
While the Rep 5 really nailed the Apple-ish unpacking experience with it’s custom-printed box and cleverly designed quick start guide, the plain white box of the Creatr contains just the printer, USB and Power Cable and a standard A4 office enveloppe with 3 “print sheets” and a Welcome Letter. There’s also no filament included like with the Rep 5. I ordered a few spools PLA, ABS and PVA filament from Leapfrog’s MAXX brand. I did some interesting discoveries on the print stickers and filament which I will write about in a separate post soon.
The Rep 5 is big and in my opinion too big for the “Desktop 3D Printer” name. Leapfrog doesn’t call it’s Creatr a Desktop printer and that’s good because it’s huge! At a whopping 50 x 50 x 60 cm you won’t have a lot of desktop space left. No problem for me because it’s in a separate Maker Room and it fit’s nicely on our work bench. Another difference is the orientation: The Rep 5 has it’s main access opening at the longest side while the Creatr has it on the smallest side. While the Rep 5 is clearly aimed at consumers with it’s hide-all-technical-parts-design the Creatr is aimed at people who aren’t scared of – or even like the look of – bare mechanics: the aluminum frame looks sturdy and industrial and almost all mechanical parts are exposed. I personally like this. Not really because of the aesthetics but more because I can see what’s happening and see the potential of being able to do maintenance on this machine that wasn’t possible (nor allowed) on the Rep 5.
Like I said in my Creatr HS anticipation post one thing I like about that printer is the 3 big lead screws that move the build plate up and down. The Creatr has these too (I think the frame of both printers is exactly the same) and they look impressive and reliable. They’re connected to an aluminum plate which hold the heated glass build plate. The Z-motor drives the lead screw in the back and the motion is transferred to the other two through belts. It’s good to see there’s a fourth pulley next to the left lead screw which can be used to tighten the belt when it gets looser over time. This mechanism looks a lot more stable and durable than the plastic build plate of the Rep 5 that only has one small lead screw in the back.
The Creatr is powered by an Arduino controller that’s hidden under a tray on the bottom of the printer. Two massive bunches of wires emerge from this tray held together by semi-transparent cable sleeves: one goes to the extruders and the other goes to the build plate and motors in the back and on the gantry. Though I like the industrial look of the printer itself these cables look messy and unprofessional, giving it them a more DIY kit look. Even opaque cable sleeves would have improved the look in my opinion. This is a big contrast to the Rep 5 that only has one white flat cable in view.
The Creatr has two direct drive extruders mounted on the X-gantry. This is a huge metal block that contains two fans, two motors and two extruders. Because the nozzles are positioned a few centimeters away from the front of the assembly which itself hangs just 1 cm from the build plate they’re hard to see. This is a big inconvenience because it makes it hard to see what the printer is doing while printing the crucial first layers of a print. As I wrote in my Rep 5 review that printer had the same problem. I’ll cover the actual printing in another part of this review.
Two filament spools can be placed on turning tables on the bottom of the machine and the filament can be fed to the extruder through guiding tubes that connect to the extruders. The tubes can be removed from the extruders too, so you can also top-load filament directly into the extruders if your spools are too big. The heated glass print bed already contained a print sticker with a calibration print and a printed dual-color cone object. It also contained a small piece of paper with a text that the printer was indeed calibrated by a Leapfrog Quality Control employee.
Physical installation of the Creatr is simple: put it where you want it, cut 3 tie-wraps and plug in the power and USB. This takes one minute. The Creatr has no screen of any kind so it’s not a stand-alone printer (that’s why I bought the Creatr HS), so next up is starting the computer.
No printed manual is supplied with the printer. The welcome letter directs you to the installation page on Leapfrog website. It contains downloadable PDF manuals for either using the printer with the Repetier Host or with the Simplify3D software like I do. The manual is comprehensive and covers many things, but content has some errors and inconsistencies. For instance there are references to Repetier Host and Slic3r which aren’t needed with Simplify3D. Clearly someone did a rush job when making the Simplify3D version of the manual, but it’s easy to follow most of the steps if you have some basic technical knowledge.
The first problem I encountered is that that the manual only covers software setup for Windows. As you might have seen in the picture I use a Macbook Pro and the Creatr product page clearly says the printer is compatible with Mac OS X. So I took another look at the installation page and found out that there’s a series of videos for each step of the installation, including installing the software on a Mac.
I watched the video, but it refers to software download links below the video that aren’t there. I know that Leapfrog released a new website and apparently they re-embedded the existing videos without checked if things were still correct. This is something that I see happening often and it’s why we advise against the use of Screen Captures when developing content for clients at our Animation Marketing studio Captain Motion: websites change so often nowadays that videos and animations need to be designed with that in mind. This is the point where non-tech-savvy people are just lost and that counts as bad user experience design. I eventually found the right software by watching the video full screen and searching Google for the filenames in the tutorial, which are the Arduino Software and the Virtual COM Port Driver. After installing the two pieces of software above Simplify3D connected to the printer without any problems.
Though MakerBot’s software isn’t great it really wins with fool-proof installation and the step-by-step installation guide on the Rep 5’s display itself. I’m really curious if the Creatr HS’ on-screen interface will offer any installation or maintenance guidance.
First thing to do is make yourself familiar with the Simplify3D Machine Control Panel. Following the instructions the first steps are heating the print bed and the extruder(s) you want to use. This is done by clicking the ON buttons next to the temperature fields. The LCD-like numbers are the read-out of the actual temperature. There’s also a handy temperature plot under one of the tabs.
When the extruder is hot the filament transport gears can be controlled through Simplify3D with either the Extrude or Retract commands. I find the steps between the buttons a bit awkward, especially the gap between 10 and 100 which is essentially either moving the filament 10 mm or 100 mm down. 10 mm isn’t enough to load the filament through the gears into the hot end and 100 is too much. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if loading filament was straight forward and fool-proof. Unfortunately that is far from case with the Leapfrog Creatr 3D Printer:
First the filament has to go into the cilinder on top of the extruder assembly. This is actually harder to do right then expected, because the hole on top is bigger than the hole in the bottom of that cilinder and there’s no funnel shape to guide the filament through the bottom. Next the filament has to go down about 15 mm and touch the gears on the right spot. That seems easy when looking at the photo below, but because 3D print filament comes on a spool it’s aways a little bent it’s kind of a gambling game. And I was using a brand new spool: imagine the bend the filament has when you reach the end of a spool…
When you’ve completed the gear-level of this game, you enter the final stage: the hole (pronounced with scary voice) that sits a few millimeters under the gears. Again, depending on how bent the filament is (I tried straightening it with my fingers to no avail) and how it enters the gears it might or might not go through. The hole does have some funnel-shaping to guide the filament, but it still won’t go through when it’s not coming in at exactly the right angle. When it doesn’t it hits the metal next to the hole and depending on the amount of extrusion the gears will then scrape the filament for a few seconds. Then you obviously need to retract to get the filament out and try again. But because of all the action the end of the filament is in bad shape so I had to cut it some of. Maybe I’ll get better at this game in the coming weeks, but for now it feels like a game of chance.
This is hard as it is for the left extruder (pictured below left) but even harder for the right extruder. As you might have seen I placed the printer in the right corner of our work bench so I have to rotate the heavy printer to get a look at the right extruder. On top of that the bunch of cables block the sightline from the right side (picture below right) making it even harder to get right.
Even after managing to get the filament through the hole (one time it took me 15 minutes of trying) it’s no guarantee for success. I don’t know why exactly but it seems like there can still be some bends in the filament when it goes trough, leading to clicking noises (Rep 5 flash back here) and tangled extrusion.
These filament issues confirm the test results in Make: Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing 2014:
“Despite the impressive parts list, we had trouble getting any prints longer than one hour to work successfully on the unit. We tried both extruders but had filament feeding issues on both.”
That piece was actually written in November 2013 so the issues still exist more than half a year later. In the end I was able to load both extruders with PLA filament.
The MakerBot Rep 5’s Smart Extruder offers a better and fool-proof filament loading experience… but – of course – this is only the case if the Smart Extruder works and isn’t clogged, which it will be eventually.
Homing the Axes
With the filament loaded the manual instructs to “home the the axes”. This is needed for the printer to know where the coordinates are zero so it can determine where to print. The homing position of the printer is in the front-left position and can be done with four simple buttons in Simplify3D that let you home the x, y and z-axis separately or at once. Physically homing the X (left to right) and Y (back to front) axis is done with two switches located to the left of the x-gantry (picture below left). The printer comes with the extruder to the front-right so I decided to home the Y-axis first because it was already almost in place. After hitting the button the x-gantry moves to the front, hits the switch and slows down to get in place.
Allright, I understand that at this point you think I’m going crazy when writing in depth about the homing of a 3D printer, but here’s when it get’s interesting.
Next up was the homing the x-axis. After hitting the button in Simplify3D the extruder assembly moved towards the left side of the printer and I was expecting the same slowdown as it would hit the switch… but… it didn’t! Instead it rammed into the switch and wouldn’t stop until I hit the Emergency Stop in Simplify3D – Scary times!
After a quick investigation it became clear that one of the wires of the x-homing sensor wasn’t connected (picture below right). I realize that this would be an easy fix, but fixing things right out of the box isn’t what I pay this amount of money for. I assume that the cable was both too short and badly soldered to the switch and it had snapped off. Reality is that a defective x-homing sensor isn’t the end of the world, especially because I only have to use this printer for a few weeks and I Simplify3D let’s you manually reset the coordinates.
The most important sensor is the z-homing sensor, because it’s crucial that the extruder nozzles are just the right distance from the glass build plate. The Creatr uses an inductive sensor which is located in the back on the left side that should detect when it passes by. Should… because it didn’t!! And this isn’t a full metal extruder ramming into a full metal assembly like the x-axis, but a build plate made of glass and I was curiously looking at it with my eyes just a few centimeters away when I saw the nozzles disappearing. Luckily the glass plate is mounted on the aluminum frame with springs and I had muscle memory to quickly click the Emergency Stop in Simplify3D before the glass broke. That was a close one! By now I had plenty of adrenaline running through my veins. I lowered the plate and tried the z-homing again while holding a metal object against again but the sensor didn’t work at all. Another weekend without 3D printing…
The monday morning after I called Leapfrog about the problems and I could come by and switch the printer for another one. After driving 1,5 hours I unpacked the new printer, plugged it, removed the test prints and started homing. Y: check, X: check, Z: oh no! Again? Yes! Again I saw the extruders disappear and the glas plate flex as far as it can. Emergency Stop. This time the sensor did work when I held a pair of scissors against it but it was installed incorrectly. These sensors are very sensitive and this one was placed to far away from the side of the build plate frame so it couldn’t detect it. Leapfrog only has e-mail support and because I was too fed up to wait for that I decided to loosen the sensor and place it a little bit closer. This is a very precise job: to close and the build plate hits the sensor, too far and it won’t detect it. Anywhere in between leads to different stop heights up to 4mm in my case. After tuning it for an hour I had it in the perfect spot! More or less because I still have to adjust the z-offset, but more on that later: I could actually print now! Hooray!
I did some research to the z-homing issues and discovered I was not alone. There are even 3D printable Creatr Mods on Thingiverse:
The mods above are published in February 2013 and June 2013 respectively and there’s a lot on various forums about the z-homing sensor. So I don’t understand why Leapfrog still ships a product that is very error-sensitive. If this was just my first Creatr that had a problem with z-homing I would have called it bad “people-make-mistakes” luck but it happened with both my Creatrs and many others so it’s a structural problem.
Comparison to the MakerBot Replicator 5th Gen so far
I sent my Rep 5 back because the two printers I tried both had issues with both the Homing/Calibration and with the Extruder. And although the Creatr is a totally different printer with completely different ways of detection and filament transport, the issues are more or less the same. One thing I know for sure now: the success of 3D printing depends only partially on the actual printing – being able to easily and reliably calibrate the build plate and load filament is just as important. Both printers I had failed at that.
Conclusion & hopes/expectations for the Creatr HS so far
This concludes my first few days with the Creatr during installation and setup. Clearly this model isn’t “Plug & Print” and this again confirms the things in the Make: Magazine Report mentioned earlier:
“With tuning or filament changes it seems like it could be a great unit if you’ve got the space for it. […] If the out-of-box experience and first prints were better it could be a great fit in a school. As it stands, our unit needed some work to print well.”
Well… I still have a few weeks to try to “tune” it and give it “some work.” Maybe I’ll acquire the skills necessary to tame this beast. But to be honest: if this wasn’t a temporary solution for a few weeks I would have sent it back.
But… I still have high hopes for the Creatr HS and I expect these problems to be fixed. The HS will have a completely different Bowden-style extruder and I took a look at the high res photos and promo video of the HS and couldn’t spot the z-sensor the Creatr has so I guess it uses another method for the z-homing procedure.
In the next part of this Leapfrog Creatr Review I’ll write about my experiences with the actual printing and quality of the prints using different materials. Of course I have to make a lot of prints before I can do that objectively and that’s exactly what I will do in the coming weeks! I won’t post all photo’s on this blog but I will post them some visual updates on Twitter! So follow me there if you would like to know when the next part is live And please let me know what you think of this review so far!