First look: MakerBot introduces Smart Extruder+ (and it's pretty nice)

MakerBot's SmartExtruder+ is expected to increase reliability of the company's "hot end." Our early testing shows it's a clear improvement over the previous plastic-layering component.

MakerBot introduces new Smart Extruder

Okay, I'll admit it. I've been getting spoiled prints from my MakerBot Replicator Fifth Generation. As I've discussed before, I'm pretty much over the moon about my experiences with and the possibilities of 3D printing, but in my six or so weeks with the Replicator, I have run into my fair share of problems.

The new Smart Extruder+ is designed to fix all that -- and in my initial testing, it seems to do the job.

The extruder is basically the business end, the print head (in paper printing terms) of a 3D printer. It's also called the "hot end" because it's the part of the printer that actually heats up the plastic and adds it in sub-millimeter layers to the print. The MakerBot extruder serves two key functions: it pulls the plastic filament from the roll and layers it onto the print.

The MakerBot Replicator Fifth Generation has had some teething pains. It's been out for a while now, but some users have told me that when it first came out, they were often rather unhappy. By the time MakerBot sent me my bundle of robotic joy, most of those rough spots had been sanded down.

And yet, I, like others, have experienced failed prints. In fact, I had a bunch of failures this weekend. Three separate times I tried printing the box shell for my first big self-designed project and three times the extruder failed. I think it was because I put in a brand new roll of filament, and the work necessary to pull the filament from the heavier roll into the hot end was too much for the extruder.

A couple of weeks ago, the extruder actually blasted itself off the x/y axis arm. When I went to check on the print, I found this:

So that brings us to the brand new Smart Extruder+. MakerBot sent me one last week, and after my three failed prints on Friday, I decided to update the firmware and install the new extruder. Installation is ridiculously easy: you just remove the old filament, unsnap the old extruder from its magnetic connection, and snap in the new one.

And it worked. As you can see below, my box printed quite nicely on the first try.

I've printed two other components of this project, also with no problems. Hint: I'm hoping to take you through this project in my next 3D printing discovery article, so check back here on Friday.

Here are some quick points about the new Smart Extruder+ that the folks at MakerBot shared:

  • MakerBot tells me they subjected the Smart Extruder+ to over 160,000 cumulative hours of testing time (the equivalent of 18 years of printing)
  • A total of 5,800 prints were completed by two groups, one at MakerBot and one at Stratasys (MakerBot's parent company)
  • In these tests, MakerBot reports the Smart Extruder+ performed consistently and reliably for over 700 hours on a MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3D Printer, which equals 1.44 miles of MakerBot PLA filament
  • Over 90 percent of test units were still printing successfully at 1,200+ hours of print time

In terms of technical improvements the Smart Extruder+ has an improved thermal management system and an extended PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) tube to feed the filament into the nozzle. I've also been told that the new extruder reports a faster print start up and refined build plate leveling process.

I wasn't able to verify this because I started my print and ran out to the local home supply store for parts to fix a toilet. But as the image below shows (grabbed in the plumbing aisle of Home Teapot), my second print on the new extruder came out quite nicely.

Let's take a moment to appreciate that image for a minute. That was generated by the MakerBot Replicator's built-in webcam and I was able to check the status of the print in my garage on a Sunday afternoon while buying toilet connector pipes across town. How cool is that?

Overall, I have high hopes for the Smart Extruder+. Clearly the MakerBot folks put a lot of effort into testing and refining this most essential component of their system. The new extruder is available for $99 for existing MakerBot customers and will list for $199 when it ships on January 18, 2016.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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