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Continuing where I left of with Part 1 of this Review it was now time for some actual 3D printing! Or not? Well not quite! I did make a few testprints when I finally got the filament in but when I wanted to change filament again for another print, the whole filament-loading game started all over. This time I tried to load filament into the right extruder and wasn’t able to succeed after trying it for over 20 minutes.
This clearly isn’t supposed to be that hard, so I decided that it was now time for the “tuning” part I ended with in my last post. I didn’t expect this to be necessary for a printer that is advertised with the following description…
“The 3D printer is fully assembled and pre-calibrated when it arrives at your doorstep. This means that the installation of the printer does not take up a lot of your time and you will be printing your first object in about 30 minutes!”
…but it clearly is so let’s do it!
Tuning the Hardware
Taking apart the extruder assembly is actually quite easy if you have a complete set of wrenches and allen keys. The design is based on milled aluminum parts that slide into each other. By removing two allen bolts you can slide away the fans in the front. Another 4 allen bolts take away the perforated plate, giving you a view of the extruder motors. Now I could see what was really happening between the gears and the hole:
As you can see the filament bends when going through the gears. The same thing was happening to the left extruder, but less extreme. Luckily the extensive manual has a chapter on how to change the distance between the gear in the center and the passive bearing. By loosening the two allen bolts on top I managed to make the distance between them a little larger. This takes some trial and error, but after a 5-10 tries on both extruders I got the gears perfectly aligned with the hole and the filament went through straight enough for a 100% loading success rate.
But even when you’ve perfected the filament loading, strange things can still happen: I had three occasions where the filament had chosen a different route during printing even after series of successful layers. At those moments the gears wouldn’t push the filament through the hot end, but into the extruder assembly itself like in the image below. This requires disassembling the extruder assembly to clear the mess, which takes at least 20 minutes plus the lost time of your ruined print – frustrating.
The Z-Homing Sensor
In my previous post I already wrote about the failing z-homing sensor of the Creatr. Although I thought I positioned it right I still had several nerve-wrecking near-build-plate-death-experienes. On top of that I found out that the z-homing was inaccurate – the difference between two homing actions could easily be 0,2-0,4 mm making it impossible to assure the correct distance from the plate for the crucial first layers of a print.
So I downloaded one of the mods from Thingiverse (this one fitted my version of the printer) to change the direction of the inductive sensor.
This way the sensor detects the aluminum part of the build plate axially and that actually solved my z-homing problems completely! It still boggles my mind that Leapfrog doesn’t install this as a default or at leasts ships with the printer.
Tuning the Software
I used the printer with the Simplify3D software I reviewed earlier which comes pre-loaded with 3 profiles for the Creatr: two for printing with either the left or right extruder and one for printing with both extruders at the same time. Both the Leapfrog manual and Simplify3D’s website offer useful information on the many different settings.
To do my first print I loaded the STL of 3D Hub‘s mascotte Marvin and just changed the material setting to PLA plastic instead of ABS. I hit print and after 15 minutes Marvin was ready… but actually he looked more like Marvin’s granny!
Clearly the filament had problems because PLA is known for it’s ability to print small details this print looked like a hideous blob. So I dove into the standard profiles and started experimenting with the settings.
Tuning the Temperatures
The first thing I noticed was that the standard extruder temperature for PLA was set at 190 degrees celsius. I know that PLA can be printed at low temperatures, but even the sticker on Leapfrog’s MAXX filament spool advices a printing temperature between 200 and 220 degrees. This is actually a great contrast with my experience with the MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation 3D Printer (Rep 5 for short): the first versions of it’s profiles had a temperature of a 230 degrees which got tuned down to an (practically unchangeable) 215 degrees in later firmwares of MakerBot Desktop. Anyway, I experimented with different temperatures and 210-215 degrees seemed to work a lot better than 190.
The lines now printed better but looking closely at the extruder I noticed that the printed part didn’t look like solid plastic. The last few layers have the tendency to creep upwards. This way the nozzle touches the print, moving it up and down:
One important setting that seemed to have a negative influence on the print is the constant temperature of the heated glass build plate. While many PLA-only 3D printers – like the Rep 5 – don’t have a heated bed at all the Creatr’s manual advices a bed temperature of 60 degrees and this is also pre-set in the profiles. The idea behind this is to improve the bond between the plastic and the build plate and reduce warping. PLA can still warp a bit when printing large surface areas and that was something I did have problems with on the Rep 5. But because the temperature is set at a constant 60 degrees during the whole print, the bottom part of the print will be close to this temperature. In my opinion this isn’t ideal because the glass temperature – at which a thermo plastic becomes pliable – starts around that temperature for PLA. This way the print is very pliable, making it easier to creep upwards.
After a lot of testprints I discovered two solutions: for prints with a small contact area with the build plate I leave the build plate heater off. If the z-offset is perfect, PLA will stick to the print sticker just fine. To prevent warping on prints with a larger contact area I program Simplify3D to start the print with the build plate at 60 degrees and turn it off after the first one or two layers. The bed will cool down gradually over a period of 10-20 minutes, depending on the room temperature. This not only resulted in cleaner horizontal lines but also saves a lot of electricity! And – most importantly – I experienced no problems with adhesion or warping on PLA with this method and prints come of the cooled bed with print sticker fairly easily if if I stick an x-acto knife or razor blade under it and give it a little nudge. This is a relief compared to the Rep 5’s prints that sometimes where almost impossible to remove from MakerBot’s blue tape sheets.
But even with the temperature settings tuned I noticed that the top layers of filament still have some tendency to creep upwards. While I could overcome this in most situations by lowering the speed for small objects (to a painstakingly slow 20 mm/s) so the filament cools passively I kept having problems with shapes that get larger from the bottom up. Even slight overhang angles make the filament move upwards no matter what I tried. I think the real problem here is the absence of a fan that cools the nozzle and print itself so it solidifies faster. This is actually a substantial problem and the only solution for the Creatr is 3D printing a custom nozzle cooler mod (available on Thingiverse) but I didn’t test this. I do remember the Leapfrog representative telling me that the new Creatr HS will have active print cooling. I really hope it does, because without it the only way of letting the print cool down sufficiently is reducing the speed so it can passively cool before the next layer is printed.
A last temperature-related setting I tuned is also heating the unused extruder while only printing with one extruder. This prevents the cold, idle extruder from hitting a print that has creeped up slightly and knocking it off the plate. Or – when the print sticks well – bumping against the print and moving the glass build plate slightly (though it sits on springs, it the plate can move a little in the x and y direction with some force). Both ruin your print – and at this speed, your day. A hot extruder moves these edges out of the way a bit more easer. Be sure to empty the idle extruder when doing this because it can ooze little bits of another material into the print – more on this “oozing” later.
Tuning the Speed
While both the printer itself and the extruder assembly of the Creatr are build solid enough te survive a nucleair blast, the big extruder assembly with it’s two direct drive motors is very heavy. The Creatr has a pre-loaded profile speed of 3600 mm per minute – or 60 mm per second (Simplify3D notes all speed in mm/min while I prefer mm/s) – which makes the printer vibrate quite a lot when doing short moves.
I use the Terminator Skull (at 7 cm height) to test print accuracy because of the hydrolic beams in the neck and jaw which have to be printed perfectly to join the skull later in the print. I was unable to get this print perfect at 60 mm/s and even noticed problems at 40 mm/s. At 30 mm/s it printed perfectly. Comparing it to the print I made with the Rep 5 I notice that that one has a lot of tiny holes in it (so called air prints caused by extrusion interruptions). Almost none of the prints I did with the Creatr contained air holes, which I like a lot.
So I got better prints when I
- increased the extrusion temperature from the standard 190 to 210-215 degrees
- only heating the plate to 60 degrees for the first layer of a print – or not heating it at all with small prints with PLA
- decreasing the print speed to 75% or even 50% for really detailed work
3D Printing with the Leapfrog Creatr in Practice
Connecting and Pre-heating
The on-switch of the printer is in the back. After swithing Simplify3D connects to it automatically most of the times. If it doesn’t it’s just one click away. Pre-heating the extruder(s) is done within a few minutes. Pre-heating the bed takes quite long – even to 60 degrees. A closed build chamber would have been great on such an industrial printer which is only open at the top and front now. I experimented with just putting a plastic bag over it and that speeds up the pre-heating. It naturally saves energy if you want to keep the heater on during a long build, like with ABS or Nylon materials.
I did have some initial communication issues when I was starting a new print after another was finished, but they could all be solved by switching the printer off and on and reconnecting.
Homing and checking the first layer
When everything is heated up the printer homes all 3 axes and starts printing right away. Like I mentioned earlier it’s hard to see if it’s printing the first layer correctly when doing small prints because of the low extruder and far nozzle position. The blue LEDs are located on the back of the build plate and serve a decorational purpose only. They don’t increase the visibility so be sure you have good overhead lights. I missed the small white LED on the extruder of the MakerBot Rep5!
Filament Spool Placement
The compartiment on the bottom of the printer is clearly designed for 16cm filament spools. 20cm spools do fit (by the way: I’m under the impression that Leapfrog has recently switched from 16cm 1KG spools t0 20cm 0,75KG spools for their MAXX Filament – at the same price per spool), but it’s very tight and that makes it hard to load the filament into the tiny hole that connects to the tube. Plus the idea of the two turn tables on the bottom inside the printer to store the active spools of filament is nice on paper, but didn’t work for me in practice. The ball bearings offer almost frictionless turning and that has proven to be a bad thing: the spools often keep turning further when the filament is pulled in by either the me (while loading) or the printer. This sometimes results in the tightly-winded filament spiraling of the spool and I’ve had two occasions in which this resulted in tangled filament snapping. As opposed to the MakerBot Rep 5 the Creatr doesn’t detect when it’s out of filament and effectively keeps printing air when it does. A simple fix is putting the spools outside of the printer rolling against it. The extruders have enough torque to pull in the filament and the spools give enough friction to keep things from spinning out of control. I ended up printing a custom spool holder, because I still have a lot of large 25cm MakerBot filament spools.
Applying and Replacing the Print Sticker
3D Printers usually require some sort of material to be stuck on the glass build plate to improve filament adhesion. Leapfrog uses so called Print Stickers for this purpose. They actually Avery J8567 self-adhesive inkjet labels, which are also available in most office supply stores. They actually work pretty well: I experienced no adhesion or warping problems at all with the Creatr. They work better than blue tape (sheets), are easier to work with and ensure a very smooth bottom surface on your prints.
Replacing the sticker takes a little time though. I suggest you do it when the bed is completely cool. That way it leaves the least amount of sticker residue on the glass. The remaining residue can easily be removed with lamp oil (a trick I learned when working with glue binders at a print shop way back). Be sure to degrease the surface after that. A drip of household cleaning detergent and damp paper towel did the trick. Applying a new sticker without air bubbles requires some practice, but isn’t very hard if you have a little patience and use a credit card. The Creatr’s glass plate has a convenient grid, so applying the sticker straight is a breeze. One minor problem with the stickers is that they’re A4 sized which is 210mm wide while the Creatr’s print surface is 230mm wide when printing with one extruder. So if you want to do a very big print or print many parts at the same time, you have to cut up a second print sheet to use the complete width.
The actual 3D Printing
Printing PLA with one extruder
Printing PLA is straight forward. I must admit that it has taken me 3 weeks of daily experimentation to get comfortable with it, but now I even dare to walk away after hitting Print in Simplify3D: I’m confident that the build plate actually stops when z-homing and stops at the correct distance from the extruder to get the first layer to stick well, not warp and be easily removable after the print is done. (Slight correction to this at the end of this review)
What’s also noteworthy is that it’s entirely possible to make water-tight prints with the Creatr. This is something I had great problems with with the Replicator, because it suffered from filament flow interruptions leading to small holes in prints. As I wrote before I didn’t have any of those when printing PLA at temperatures above 210 degrees.
Printing PLA with two extruders
I was pretty exited about the possibilities of dual extrusion but until now the uses of it have proven to be limited due to filament oozing issues. This happens because a small amount of hot filament leaks out of the idle extruder when the printer switches to the other one. Depending on you design this small thread of filament will stick to the actual print and they’re impossible to remove afterwards without damaging the print surface. This isn’t a real problem when printing different layers of color on top of each other, like the cone on the left, because the extruders are switched only a few times.
But if you want to print two colors next to each other it’s a real problem.
I’ve been busy trying to overcome this problem for a few days now by tuning all kinds of settings, like lowering the temperature and increasing the retraction length. While this improves the result, it doesn’t solve the problem completely. Simplify3D offers no support for generating wiper/purge walls like MakerWare of Cura do. These tools create a thin wall of the first color on the left of the print and one of the second color on the right of the print so threads of leaking filament are caught on to that. This also ensure the filament starts flowing before printing the actual part of the print.
I experimented with custom made wiper/purge walls and that greatly improved the result. I’ve been in contact with bot Leapfrog and Simplify3D support on this and both suggested increasing retraction. I’ve been able to do this on tool change, but still don’t have perfectly clean results. Please let me know if you know how to do this right!
Printing with PLA and water-soluble PVA supports
PVA supports sounded like the solution for total creative freedom when 3D printing. When using the MakerBot Rep 5 I did a lot of prints with PLA supports in the same color as the prints and found that they where sometimes hard to remove and almost always left marks on the print. I did a few prints with PLA supports in the same color with the Creatr and discovered that the supports Simpify3D generates are actually very easy to remove and usually don’t leave noticeable marks at all.
Until now printing with PVA supports has given me the same problems as printing with two colors of PLA and while threads of PVA arent much of a problem since they’re water soluble there are also threads of the PLA color I was printing. This resulted in messy, unusable prints.
I also noticed that although PVA has a similar melting temperature as PLA it’s harder to get it to stick well and print small things with. I got better results when I increased the support density and lowered the support printing speeds.
This printer is not as quiet as some smaller desktop 3D printers on the market, but it a lot less loud than the MakerBot Rep 5. That printer makes a very irritating high-pithed noise all the time while the Creatr’s noises are lower pitched and more mechanical sounding. The noise level only goes up when it printing short, straight lines at fast speeds. When put in a separate room with the door closed, you won’t notice this printer very much. I actually went inside a lot of times to check if it was still printing.
Printing with other materials
I was planning to make test prints with ABS too and maybe try Nylon or LayBrick, but because of the many hours that went into the tuning and fixing of this printer I didn’t have time for that. To be honest my priority is PLA printing at the moment. I think PLA is preferred over ABS for most professional creative purposes. Reasons for this are less warping, better details, a nicer glossy finish and the fact that it doesn’t smell bad when printing.
There are three situations where I would print with ABS:
- Structural parts that has to be stronger, more flexible and more heat resistant (PLA gets soft at 60 degrees celsius while ABS holds it’s integrity up to 100 degrees)
- Prints that have to be painted
- Prints that will have an Acetone Vapor treatment to make them very glossy
At the end of a print the Creatr lowers the bed and shuts down the extruder and bed heaters. It’s LED light and dual fans are kept on. It would be nice if these turned off after everything has cooled down to save energy and noise. Neither the printer nor Simplify3D make a sound when printing is done. While I initially thought that the Rep 5’s build in tunes where gimmicky, I do think it’s great when an appliance makes a sound when it’s done or something is wrong. Dishwashers, Microwaves and Dryers have done it for ages, so 3D printers should do it too so you know when you can start another cycle.
One more (smokey) thing…
While I was making some last test prints with the Creatr while sitting next to it and finalizing this review, it started making an electrical noise followed by a puff of (very smelly) smoke coming out of the extruder carriage! Luckily I was there to pull the plug! After disassembling the extruder carriage again I found out what went wrong: as you can see in the animation in the first section of this post the power wires of the two fans go in between the two extruder motors to the back. Here they are connected to the power supply by a small socket that has to be disconnected when disassembling the extruder carriage. I think that the wires had become damaged while doing so for the many problems I encountered in the past weeks. This has led to a short circuit in the wires of the left fan that got melted pretty bad.
I don’t know what would have happened if I wasn’t sitting near the printer when this happened, but I don’t want to find out and would never leave this printer unattended or printing at night again. As I wrote in part one of this review I had my doubts about the Creatr’s wiring to begin with and it has now proven to be problematic twice. I hope that the Creatr HS’ wiring will be greatly improved compared to this, because the wiring design of the Creatr is flawed.
Pros and Cons
I’ve been able to test the Creatr longer than I expected because of continuous delays with the Creatr HS I originally ordered (more on this soon in a separate post on this site) and have spend enough hours with it to make a pros and cons list.
- Sturdy housing
- Three big active threaded rods holding the build plate stable
- Large Build Volume allowing big prints or multiple small prints at the same time
- Dual Extrusion adds creative possibilities with multiple colors or printing with PVA support material
- It makes less noise than I expected – far less than the MakerBot Replicator 5th Gen – but it’s still too noisy for a desktop.
- Very maintenance-friendly because of the detailed manual and quick and easy disassembly of the extruder carriage and hot ends to remove jammed filament.
- Extruders aren’t very sensitive to nozzle clogging, though it’s prone to filament feeding problems.
- Glass build plate is large and although it’s not removable it’s easy to remove prints and remove/apply the print stickers. The grid on the build plate is helpful for this too.
- Print stickers offer better results than blue tape and are less messy than glue stick or hair spray.
- Needs a lot of work and tuning before it’s reliable enough for everyday use
- Z-Homing sensor is a big design flaw. A 3D printed mod is required to improved reliability and accuracy
- The extruder assembly is sturdy, but not put together accurately, so it needs a lot of tuning to make filament feeding reliable
- The wiring is something you expect from a home-build 3D printer, not an assembled one. Daily operation can also damage the wires easily, increasing the possibility to short-circuit things.
- Slow maximum print speed of 60 mm/s that needs to be tuned down to 30-40 mm/s to print small details accurately
- The absence of active filament cooling leads to filament creeping upwards during printing. This makes printing detailed objects with even small overhangs inaccurate.
- Partially open design leads to longer pre-heating times and higher energy consumption
- Nozzles are located far from the front of the extruder, making it hard to see the crucial first layers of a print
- LED lights are purely decorational and don’t improve print progress visibility
- Not standalone, so it needs to be connected to a computer all the time when printing
- Filament Spool location is a bit tight for wider spools and the low-friction turntables can make the spools spin too easy so the filament spirals off an can easily get tangled.
Verdict (long version)
While the Leapfrog Creatr obviously isn’t meant to put on a desktop because of it’s size it will look pretty nice on a work bench in a work shop next to other industrial machines like a drill and a table saw or maybe a small CNC machine. It’s industrial design and sturdiness af well as the many easy-to-adjust allen screws.
That said you need some experience with work shop tools to get started with this printer and keep it going in the future. It’s no plug-and-print machine but if you can affort and want to spend a few days of testing and tuning, you will learn a lot about this machine and be able to mod and fix most issues that will arise. It’s noteworthy that Leapfrog offers all spare parts for this printer through their online store for reasonable prices, so if your handy you can minimize eventual downtimes.
If you’re looking for a 3D printer with a big, heated build plate that can print all kinds of materials with dual extrusion and print time, energy consumption, some noise and some technical maintenance aren’t a problem, this printer is worth the current price. I would advice to buy the Simplify3D software with it if your budget allows.
If you’re looking for a hassle-free 3D printer that works out of the box and is reliable and fast enough for tight deadlines or want to print small, detailed designs with one or two colors, this printer won’t make you (and your co-workers or girlfriend) happy.
Verdict (short version)
This is a printer for technical people in a workshop or maker space that don’t mind fixing and modding things – not for creative professionals in a studio or at home users that are looking for a hassle-free 3D printer.
Well there has been a lot going on here over the past few weeks. I might not be able to test the Creatr HS because anytime soon because of the delay, but I’ve had contact with other suppliers that will let me review their 3D printers soon! I’ll announce which ones very soon so Follow me – @NickLievendag – on Twitter and be the first to know!