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In this review I write about my 3-month experience with the MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation Desktop 3D Printer that eventually ended returning the printer after having both the Smart Extruder and the 3D printer itself replaced multiple times.
I wrote this review partially because I always learn a lot from summarizing my experiences in writing, but also because there are very few comprehensive reviews about the MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation Desktop 3D Printer at this point. I’ve read some written by tech journalists that probably got to test the printer for a week. Most notably I just couldn’t believe that the Wall Street Journalist that wrote this review was still positive after he had experienced two clogged extruders on this MakerBot Replicator Mini (which uses the same Smart Extruder) within the reviewing period.
As a professional 3D designer I’ve been doing many animation and visual effects projects over the past 10 years. I’ve been interested in 3D printing ever since I saw the early plywood MakerBot and Ultimaker models. Because I’m a designer first and maker second, I didn’t want to spend my weekends on building a 3D printer myself. That’s why my interest was re-triggered when 3D printer manufacturers like those above introduced pre-assembled machines. So a year ago I started to seriously orient myself towards investing my first 3D printer. In the end the shortlist was down to the MakerBot Replicator 2 and the Ultimaker 2.
But then MakerBot unvealed their line of 5th Generation 3D printers. As I’m always following the latest tech industry news so I knew that MakerBot Industries had been aquired by industrial 3D printing giant Stratasys. I was also aware that because of this the 5th Gen printers would be closed source. I assumed that that meant that the end user wasn’t allowed to tinker with the hardware and firmware anymore and in return get better warranty and support. That was no problem for me, because for me a 3D printer would be just as much a tool in the box as my Apple Macbook Pro and my Wacom tablet are: premium-priced, but well-build professional products that last for years. As opposed to hobbyists, those are criteria most professionals seek and are willing to invest in. The concept of a replacable Smart Extruder, printing via USB or network and mobile print-monitoring won me over. And the fact that this is a 5th generation product mattered to me as well, because this means that a company has had the time to itterate and improve the product based on experiences with earlier generations.
So in april I ordered my very own MakerBot when it was just out and received it a week later. When the big box arrived at our studio I was very delighted and this was the first I felt the exitement of unboxing ever since buying my first iPhone in 2007. That’s the second time I mention Apple in this article and that’s obviously what MakerBot wants to become: the Apple of 3D printing. And the unboxing experience was up to par with that mission: the packaging is designed well and all the separate parts like the Smart Extruder, power and USB calbe, build plate and a spool of Filament are neatly presented in a flat box that greets you with a warm welcome when you flap it open.
Removing the printer itself from the box however, was a different experience in my case. When I got the heavy machine out of the box and put it on my desktop, I noticed something was hanging from the printhead by only a few wires. It was already friday afternoon, so the idea of my weekend alone with this printer (girlfriend was convieniently away for the weekend) was getting unlikely. But after inspecting the loose-hanging parts I realized that it was a simple assembly containing a cooling fan and a small circuit board with an LED which could be snapped onto the print head. It must have come of during transport and MakerBot Support later told me that this happens once in a while. For a printer costing more than 3000 euros, this felt a bit flimsy: even a €29 Canon inkjet printer comes with a few pieces of blue tape stuck on moving parts to protect them during transport. But I could fix it, so I moved on with the installation.
The initial setup was iMac-like: plug it in and press the big button. The other installation steps are displayed on the big 4 inch color display with a very sleek user interface. First up was the firmware update, that is a one button-press procedure when the printer is connected to an ethernet cable. While it was updated, I stuck one of the included blue tape sheets on the glass of the removable build plate. Then it was time to attach the Smart Extruder – the innovative heart of this line of printers. It magnetically latches onto the print head. The next step is what MakerBot calls Assisted Leveling: assuring that the nozzle has the same distance from the complete surface of the plate, also called tramming. The procedure is presented in a fool-proof way: after the buildplate has moved up to touch the nozzle at different points the display instructs the user to turn one of the two dials under the buildplate in the indicated direction until the LED on the print head lights up. After this it instructs you how to load the Filament, which is as easy as letting the extruder heat up, guiding the Filament from the internal storage through a tube and into the top of the extruder where it gets pulled in by gears until a stream of melting plastic comes out of the hot nozzle. Final step is making the first print by choosing on of the examples from the inernal storage and watching – and hearing because the printer makes quite a lot of noise – your first print be made.
So far so good. I used the printer on a daily base while I was learning the MakerBot Desktop software and made a dozen of small testprints from Thingiverse downloads to test de diffrences between the Standard (0,2mm layer height) and High (0,1mm) settings. I also started testing prints without a raft, because I wanted to print some iPhone casings with a smoother back surface. All went well until the extruder started making a few clicking noises while printing and prints started to have holes in them. After removing the Filament, re-leveing the build plate and doing some small test prints, everything seemed fine again until it started clicking again while doing a larger print job. I unloaded the filament and re-leveled, but when I wanted to re-load the filament it would only be pulled into the extruder untill a certain point and no plastic was coming out of the nozzle any more.
After calling the reseller I learned that I had a clogged extruder and that this was a know problem that many users had. Clogging – I learned – was appearently something that happens with other 3D printers too every once in a while – just like every inkjet printer can have a paper jam. In this case the problem was that molten PLA plastic had moved up insted of down and entered the un-heated part of the extruder, above the thermal barrier. There it solidifies and blocks the Filament passage. The extra problem was that neither I nor the reseller was allowed to remove the clog, because the MakerBot’s warranty doesn’t allow the close-source extruder to be opened. This means that in the case of a clog like this, or any other problem with the extruder, it has to be replaced. In my case this was within the warranty period en replacement was done within a week, which wasn’t nice but not a dissaster since I was just in my testing phase.
While waiting for the new extruder I spend a lot of time reading posts on the MakerBot Google Group, which is a completely unordered, chaotic stream of posts and comments. But when taking time to dig through it, it’s the most helpful resource MakerBot owners will ever have. Especially since many users noted that MakerBot’s e-mail Support stopped replying at all since the 5th generation was released. I must say that I was lucky to have bought the printer through the Dutch reseller, who have been very helpfull every time I called – which was often.
The following paragraphs are crucial to this story, but relatively short because it contains a repeating pattern. You’ll recognize this pattern in the next sentence. After a week with the second Smart Extruder, it too clogged. At this time it happened while swapping filament colors. When unloading the filament is retracted upwards by gears. At that time the filament never came as a thick clean piece of plastic, but usually ended in a thin string of plastic with one or more thicker parts along it – almost like beads. The problem with this is that the extruder is very high in length an the filament path very long. One of the beads can easily get stuck beind the gears and then it takes very little force to break the thin thread, leaving the broken-of filament in the extruder which – as mentioned before – may not be opened by the user. The third replacement extruder I received didn’t get recognized by the printer. It just kept instructing me to attach one that was allready in place. The fourth extruder clogged within a week…
Meanwhile some users on the Google Group uploaded photos of their (2nd, 3rd, 4th) replacement extruders. There was appearently a slight difference in the design. On the outside two differences stood out: the tube on the top of the extruder got a little smaller and – more importantly – the thermal barrier now had six cooling fins instead of four. On top of this, new firmwareupdates started presenting themselves on a regular base. Although neither the redesigned extruder nor the firmware updates where combined with any information from MakerBot (they don’t do changelogs), this gave me hope because it seemed MakerBot was silently, though actively, developing their new printer.
Allthough I had my printer for just two months, I was delighted that my 5th replacement extruder was the redesigned one. This would probably solve all my problems and I dared to take our 3D print service live and started accepting the first small orders. But then – as you might have guessed by know – it started making clicking noises again. By now I always waited until the printer did a few successful layers before leaving it alone to print, so I quickly made a video and cancelled the print. I had learned by now that one of the reasons for the clogging is that the nozzle starts printing the first layer too close to the build plate. This doesn’t leave enough room for the filament to come out and instead forces it back up, coliding with the down-going motion of new filament and making the gears skip. This is the – now infamous – clicking sound that has been dubbed the clicking of death by some users.
It’s good to mention that this last failing print was being made with a brand new spool of MakerBot PLA, staight from the sealed pack. I say this because I leaned that PLA has a tendency to absorp moisture from the air when not stored dry, making the string thicker than the small hole it needs to go through. I store mine in a sealed box with many packs of silica gel on the bottom. Anyway, I wanted to do yet another assisted leveling procedure to make sure the build plate distace was even everywhere. Because the procedure uses the tip of the nozzle to measure the plate distance, it instructs you to take the Filament out instead. Problem was that mine was stuck in there. It seemed like this time the thicker part of the filament was bigger than the hole on top of the extruder and impossible to get out. At this point I was losing my patience, mainly because I had print jobs for myself and clients that had to be finished in the same week. I called the reseller and they offered to send me a completely new printer so I could make sure it wasn’t anything other than extruder issues. Though I must say most of the Errors I’ve seen contained the word extruder:
I had decided to give it one more try. Maybe I just had a bad printer. These things can happen to even the best brands especially with the first batch of a new product. I’ve had problems with the first batch of aliminum Apple iMac and the first batch of Apple Macbook Pro Retina in the past. I guess to some extend this might be something that just belongs in today’s electonics market. Products are still beging tested when they’re released and small hardware and software fixed will be released in the months after it. By now the MakerBot Replicator was out for about 4 months, so I had good faith in the new printer being better. It came with the redesigned smart extruder, so it cleary was a recent batch.
I got the printer on a friday and made a promise with myself (and people around me that hadn’t seen me out of the print room for months) that I would be testing the new printer over the weekend and next week and drawing my conclusion. Another Firmware Update had presented itself and the MakerBot Desktop software also got an update, so I made sure everything was set up to perfection. The first testprints where – again – giving me hope. This printer seemed a little more stable and even made a little less noise that the one I had before. By the way, this is still not something you will actually put on a “Desktop” if you want to keep your partner or colleauges from hating you. What I did notice was that the first small print results where very “stringy”. Stringing is what happens if the extruder has to move to another part of the print before extruding again and leaves a very thing string of filament in the process. This is usually compensated by the extruder retracting the filament up a little so it can’t leak while doing traveling moves. I guess MakerBot reduced the amount of retracting to prevent clogging, instead making things stringy. Stringy prints require a lot of clean up work.
Another thing I noticed with this new printer is that the LED on the print head was hitting the plastic edge of the build plate when printing things close to the front. This is the only printer I’ve seen so far that has a removable plastic build plate with a glass inlay. It has quite a large upstanding plastic edge on every side to make the removal possible. Of course it should be impossible for something to hit this edge, because it can move or wiggle the build plate. I guess this might have been easy to adjust, so I made a note of it and started trying larger prints. Then history started to repeat: the nozzle was too close to the plate on some parts and the clicking started again. I decided I printed a leveling calibration model from Thingiverse and clearly noticed that the plate wasn’t level. So – again – I removed the filament (at this point every filament swap is scary by the way and I’m not an anxious person) and started the Assisted Leveling procedure. The nozzle measured the center, front and back of the plate, told me that they where fine, but I knew they wheren’t because the clicking increased when the nozzle tried to print on the back part. Then it started to measure the left-to-right levels. For the first time I noticed that this took really, really long. I’m talking 15 minutes here and the extruder kept measuring left, right, left, right, left, right untill it finally gave up and presented me with: Leveling Error, the extruder might be stuck.
I knew from earlier experiences that the Smart Extruder’s nozzle is indeed a loose part. It needs to be because it’s also used for measurements. The reseller advised me with on an earlier occasion that it usually helped to give the nozzle a little wiggle with pliers to get it to center better and then trying again. This had solved some earlier Homing Erros but at this point didn’t solve anything. I even moved the printer to onother table to be sure that wasn’t affecting anything. But it kept doing leveling measurements for minutes and giving me Leveling Erros. I the end it didn’t even go into it’s leveling routing but instead got stuck in the Homing routine before that and bumping the build plate against the nozzle endlessly with loud noises.
This had cost me half my sunday and half my monday without being able to print anything. Meanwhile potential customers called and e-mailed me to ask for information about delivery times. I was also getting more and more messages through the 3D Hubs platform, which by the way is an excellent platform with great customer service! This led me to make the inevitable business-driven decission: this printer had to go. The first printer hadn’t even been picked up yet and the next was already giving me errors that prevented me from actual printing. On top of that I had discovered that MakerBot only allows the use of MakerBot-branded PLA Filament within it’s warranty coverage. That was allready a bit more expensive than other brands, but it’s good quality. But with the 5th Generation and it’s special-sized spools they went from 1KG
I realized that the actual USP of this 5th Generation MakerBot Replicator – taking the hassle out of 3D printing – had taken all my spare time and was also eating time away from my professional time in running our Animation Marketing studio. My girlfriend started using the word obsession and my business partner has switched to full 2D design and animation so he can’t be dragged into the 3D printing abyss. As I write this the two huge boxes containing the MakerBot Replicators just got picked up. I finally have time for other things now, so I used it to write this story.