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The performance of a 3D printer and the quality of the 3D prints it makes are only partially a result of the hardware specifications. The other part is the software that’s used to prepare the 3D files and convert them to the gcode instructions that instruct the printer what to do – a process called slicing.
In this post I will compare two commercial 3D printing software packages:
- MakerBot Desktop – which comes with MakerBot 3D Printers like the Replicator 5th Gen I reviewed earlier
- Simplify3D – which supports a large amount of 3D Printers and comes included with some, like the Leapfrog Creatr HS, Cyrus and ZYYX printers – some of which I’ve also reviewed.
The MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation 3D printer comes with MakerBot’s own software package: MakerBot Desktop. This is a rebranded version of their MakerWare software that came with earlier models. The new version is specifically developed for the 5th Gen printers, including the Replicator Mini and Z18 printers. It’s worth mentioning that these printers have a proprietary interface and file format that can only be generated with MakerBot Desktop, so users can’t use third party software. I used MakerBot Desktop version 3.2 which can be downloaded for free here. I like the fact that it’s a free download so potential MakerBot buyers can test the software in advance.
An increasing amount of printers, including Creatr, Cyrus & ZYYX, comes bundled with Simplify3D – a commercial application that costs €100 ($140) and works with many popular 3D printers.
Except the 5th Gen MakerBots (at least at time of writing, but I don’t expect them to be supported). Inlcluding the MakerBot Replicator 5th Gen since version 2.2. The software is included in the price. Simplify3D doesn’t offer a trial or demo version, so there’s no way to try it in advance. But I got a live demo of the software when I was visiting Leapfrog HQ a few weeks ago.
The design of MakerBot Desktop matches the MakerBot visual identity that’s used throughout the brand experience. From the website to the on-screen interface on the 5th gen I wrote about last time: Red, white and black with clear icons. It’s supports 3D objects in .OBJ and .STL format which can be added with the button on top and modified with the buttons on the left. It took me a while to discover that double-clicking those icons reveal panels for precise controle over placement, size and rotation. The software can auto arrange multiple objects and can connect to your MakerBot account and let’s you load objects you’ve added to one of your collections on Thingiverse or models you’ve bought in the MakerBot Digital Store.
The Settings Panel is very sparse. It let’s you set the layer height and infill percentage of the print and the speed. When I got my 5th Gen I used earlier versions of MakerBot Desktop that also allowed the user to change the temperature but with later versions the extruder temperature is set at 215 degrees celcius. I wasn’t happy about that change because I discovered that some colors of MakerBot PLA give better results at different temperatures and was already creating a list for that.
All other settings can be changed but that requires creating a Custom Profile. There’s no interface for this so the software instructs you to open the .json config file in a text editor and change the settings there. Expert users and people that are used to editing code won’t have problems with this but it just doesn’t fit into MakerBots “taking the hassle out of 3D printing” mantra. The config file has no comments, so you have to look up the variables online and the site it sends you to doesn’t give any info at all! I found out that the custom profile manual of MakerWare has a more info, but it’s still very sparse. It’s very easy to make mistakes with this approach because you must enter variables without knowing how big the steps are, especially when units aren’t in mm or mm/s but abstract decimals.
My first impression is that – although I’m using a Mac – the interface of Simplify3D looks very Windowsy with a lot of grey, simple buttons and basic icons. But what also caught my eye is that the object preview looks much nicer with better lighting and anti-aliasing. That might sound like something insignificant but for complex models like the Yoda bust above I really like to see the details.
There’s a toolbar on the right but it has no tools for navigation or object transformation. I have been using 2D and 3D software for more than 10 years and had to open the Quick Start PDF to see the key combos to navigate or transform the object which require a combination of CTRL and ALT and either left of right mouse clicks. Right mouse clicks aren’t very handy when using a Wacom Stylus like I do and the interface is very sensitive so I was zooming all over the place at first. But I got the hang of it after a few minutes. I think they should add navigation buttons for beginners though. As with MakerBot Desktop it also took some exploring to find the precise transform panel. It appears when double-clicking an object in the top-left list and offers everything I need.
Print Settings can be configured by adding and editing Processes in the bottom-left. Simplify3D offers the same basic settings as MakerBot Desktop does including pre-configured high, medium, low settings (which differ based on the selected printer), infill percentage and raft/support checkboxes. But as opposed to MakerBot Desktop it offers a comprehensive Advanced mode that nicely orders every thinkable setting in Tabs. It even allows these settings to be changed on a per-layer basis. This is very powerful because it let’s you print different parts of the same object with different settings. For example, when printing the Yoda bust above the printer can print the base quite fast and then slow down when doing the ears for more accuracy and less overhang problems. I especially like the separate settings for the first layer: a thicker first layer will increase the bond with the build plate when printing high quality objects. And since some 3D printers support layer heights as thin as 0,02mm this will – hopefully – make raftless printing possible.
So although the interface of MakerBot Desktop looks better at first I quickly discovered that it offers only very basic functionality and settings compared to Simplify3D. I will cover more of those features later on but first wanted to test the difference in performance.
When I was using the MakerBot Replicator 5th Gen and MakerBot Desktop I thought that preparing files for print took quite long. But because that was my first actual experience with 3D printing I thought it was normal that I had to wait minutes before the file was finally exported.
Today I benchmarked the preparation times of both MakerBot Desktop 3.2 and Simplify3D 2.1.1 and was shocked by the results! I’m using a Mac with OS X 19.9.3, a 2.6 Ghz Core i7 processor and 16GB of 1600Mhz DDR3 ram which I use daily to do 3D design an animation projects.
I tested two of my favorite models from Thingiverse because of their complexity (both have around 190.000 polygons): The Yoda Bust (cleaned version) from the screenshots above and the Terminator skull – smoothed version. I used the scale they came in with (Yoda is ±6cm high and the Terminator ±15cm). For both I chose a layer height of 0,1mm and 15% infill. No rafts or supports and hit prepare. These are the results:
|MakerBot Desktop 3.2||Simplify3D 2.1.1.|
|Yoda||5,5 minutes||9 seconds|
|Terminator||44 minutes||55 seconds|
Read that again. Yes, you read it right. And I tested and double-tested it on multiple machines: Simplify3D is 40x faster on average in these cases. This might be the most important thing, because with 3D printing time is always a big factor. Only after slicing you get an indication of how long the print will take and I usually tweak setting based on that to get the time-to-quality right so I can meet deadlines and customer expectations. With these differences the price of Simplify3D pays itself back within a few prints if you’re 3D Printing for business purposes. I checked the result of both slicing operations in the print previews and I saw no errors.
On top of that you only get a print preview when the slicing is done so you have to wait it out before you can analyse if everything went as expected. Let’s take a look at how both printers present the print previews:
The Print Preview in MakerBot Desktop opens in a separate window after the slicing is done. It can preview by layer by dragging the slider up and down. Optionally you can view the Travel moves which will display in another color. It’s not the prettiest preview but it’s accurate enough to spot errors.
Simplify3D’s preview offers more features and information. First of all you can view the print by layer but also by gcode line. This way you’ll see exactly how it’s going to print. It can even display the extruder itself. The preview played back automatically at a speed of your choosing. Opposite to the grayscale preview of MakerBot Desktop Simplify’s playback is color coded. As you can see the colors represent the printing speed. In the case of Yoda the top of his head will print at a slower speed.
Generating Extra Geometry
When 3D printing it’s sometimes necessary to generate extra geometry for different purposes. MakerBot Desktop allows the user to generate Supports to make the printing of overhanging parts possible and Rafts to get a good bond with the build plate when printing objects with a small contact area. There are no easy-to-change settings for this other than creating a custom profile and editing variables. Though it’s very much a trial-and-error approach it was absolutely necessary for me to customize the supports. Mainly because the standard settings printed the model to close to the supports, making them hard to remove and leaving marks on the print. It’s impossible to predict where it will generate supports and they can only be seen in the preview after the slicing is done. So in case of the two models above this means you might have to spend hours tweaking the supports before printing.
But what I really missed in this software is the feature to print a Skirt or Brim. In both cases the first layer of the print will contain some extra material. A Skirt is offset away from the object to get the filament flowing through the extruder before printing the actual object (see the right image below). A Brim touches the object so it has a greater contact area with the build plate to prevent it getting lose or warp mid-print. I don’t like Rafts because they use up a lot of filament and make the surface of the print feel less smooth. It must be said that the Replicator 5th Gen has a build in feature to get the initial filament flow: it draw a thick anchor line close to the front of the build area before it starts to print the actual object. But for me this didn’t work as advertised. Especially when printing objects on the other end of the build area the distance between this anchor line and the print itself is quite big and I always had problems with the very first few millimeters of a print not sticking to the plate because of under extrusion.
Looking at the preview of Simplify3D you might think that the amount of support is a little overdone. It is, but that can easily be resolved by changing the maximum overhang setting which is set to 45 degrees by default. But apart from the slicing speed the killer-feature of Simplify3D for me is the ability to customize the supports completely. This is done in the editor in stead of the print preview and gives endless freedom to where supports need to be generated and – especially – where not. In the image below I simply removed the supports I think are not needed or hard to remove like the ones generated within the eyes. Simplify3D also allows you to display interactive cross sections of your models so you can see if support is generated in hard-to-see places.
I think I’ve covered all the features of MakerBot Desktop by now but Simplify3D has many more – especially for advanced users. For instance it let’s you do basic model repair. I sometimes get files from clients that aren’t professional CAD designers and more often than not there are problems with the alignment of the normals. This means that the front and back of a polygon in a model is not correctly defined which can cause mayor slicing problems.
MakerBot Desktop has a basic (and badly documented) way of telling users that some parts may not print correctly by rendering them in… a different shade of grey! Why this isn’t bright red is a riddle to me but even if you noticed the error there’s no way to repair it without opening the model in a CAD program. To demonstrate this I made a quick model of a low-polygon ball and deliberately reversed one of the normals. As you can see in the left image below MakerBot Desktop renders that polygon dark grey but it’s hard to distinguish from the polygons that are already darker because of the shading.
Simplify3D does a better job at this. The standard color is bright orange and reversed normals don’t render at all making them easy to spot. On top of that Simplify offers an automated model check called “identify non-manifold edges” which turns the edges around the reversed polygon red. A simple click on the “repair flipped triangles” command fixes the model.
As you can see there are even more features. Like removing duplicate or orphan polygons. Altogether this makes it a very versatile piece of software to prepare 3D models for 3D printing.
(Updated December 2014)
I’ve been using Simplify3D intensively on a daily basis while Reviewing the Creatr, Cyrus & ZYYX and like it a lot. It’s fast and intuitive and well worth the money. I missed a few options in the software, including a way to display speeds in mm/s instead of mm/min, but the S3D Team has just released version 2.2 of the software that adds this and a lot of other useful features for creating nicer walls, more efficient support structures and better dual extrusion prints. Be sure to check this blog post for all the new features.