A little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to use a 3D printer for the first time. I'm pretty jaded about new technology, but after my first hands-on experience with the MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation, I felt a sense of amazement that I'd thought wasn't possible anymore.
Of course, a lot can happen in a year. The desktop 3D printer market has exploded. Usable printers are available for under $500 and there are even some models under $200. Mid-range printers have become much more capable. Printing is becoming more convenient and the number of available filament materials has skyrocketed.
MakerBot, on the other hand, has had some problems. Before I go on, I want to say that I'm incredibly grateful to MakerBot and its tech and PR team for providing me with their printer. It's been the backbone of the ZDNet DIY-IT 3D Printing Discovery Series. They're genuinely cool people and I appreciate all their help.
That said, they've had a rough year. The Replicator 5th Generation was not popular among users, particularly hobbyists and enthusiasts. It had some reliability issues. It was a more closed design than previous versions. In April, the company cut its workforce and outsourced manufacturing.
But there were some bright spots as well. In January, the company replaced its troubled extruder with a new model, the Smart Extruder+, and it's been received well by users.
Then, just this month, MakerBot introduced their newest generation printer, the Replicator+. While it's definitely not an all-new design, there are a number of substantial changes that may prove appealing to MakerBot's newly identified core markets: business and education.
In this article, and particularly in the accompanying video, I dive deep into the differences between the older 5th Generation printer and MakerBot's brand-new Replicator+.
Just looking at the two printers side-by-side, you can see that the frame of these two devices is virtually identical.
Externally, they look the same, but there are some very substantial differences internally.
The printer now has automatic bed leveling, the process where you make sure the printing plate is perfectly flat for printing. This is an important capability, because many of the printers released in the last year (including the much lower-cost $400 MOD-t) have bed leveling.
The only weirdness about the Replicator+ and its bed leveling is that the filament has to come out before it'll level the bed. So you have to take the filament out, then level the the bed to make sure everything is perfectly aligned, and then go through the process of reinserting the filament. This means that you're not going to bed level between each print. Rather, you're going to bed level once in a while. But even so, it's a whole lot less fussy than having to bed level by hand by adjusting the little knobs that are underneath the bed in the previous 5th Generation model.
The Replicator+'s build area is substantially bigger. You can really see it with this tray that I originally built on the 5th Generation and how it compares on the Replicator+.
When I built that gray tray on the 5th Generation, I used up just about the entire capacity of the build plate. By contrast, on the Replicator+ there's a lot of spare area left over.
You can see the size difference when you look at objects that can fit on the build plate as well. In the accompanying video, I show how, on the old build plate, you could fit two castles and a Yoda across the top of the plate. But on the new build plate, you can add another Yoda across the width of the plate. If you want to think about it this way, the new build plate is one Yoda wider.
This wider build area is possible because the gantry system has been reinforced. The old gantry system was based on folded sheet steel. And as you can see in the accompanying video, the new gantry is more robust, which should allow for more stable end-to-end movement. There's a larger build area from side to side because x-axis movement is more stable and the print head doesn't shake as it gets to each end. And so as a result you can have a wider build area.
The build plate on the Replicator+ is different in a different way. It twists. That allows plastic objects to pop off of the build plate. The original 5th Generation build plate was made of glass and required the user to install a blue tape adhesion surface on top.
The new build tray does not require the blue tape. In a production environment or a school, having to check and maintain the build surface could stop the flow of work or interrupt a class for an annoying and time-consuming process. By eliminating the need to customize an adhesion surface, the Replicator+ is a better solution.
The new Replicator+ build plate is flexible. You're supposed to be able to bend it so you can remove objects easily. I'm not fully comfortable with this capability, because I'm afraid I'm going to break it, but we've seen twistable plate technology in a number of different 3D printers, and I haven't heard any reports of broken plates, so I'm guessing it will be robust enough for most applications.
Update: The raft removal problem has been fixed as of 12/1/16. A firmware update to the Replicator+ combined with a software update to MakerBot Print has resulted in a solution where rafts remove without great effort and leave a nice, usable bottom of the print. Nice job on the update, MakerBot!
Now let's talk about raft removal. A raft is a series of plastic layers printed before you start printing the main object. The purpose of the raft is to help support the object as it prints and help it adhere to the print surface to prevent warping. To be workable, the raft is supposed to be able to easily be removed from the main print. Usually, that's done by adding a layer or two of very narrow connections so the raft just simply snaps off.
This was the key problem I found with the new Replicator+.
I found that the rafts printed on the bottom of the prints on the Replicator+ would not come off cleanly. As I show in the accompanying video, after doing a raft removal, the bottom of the print was really messy as compared to the old 5th Generation raft, which is nice and clean. I tried this on three different prints and had exactly the same problem.
Every 3D print is different. In most cases, if you know the filament you're using, the easiest way is to choose from a set of presets for your filament. In the case of both the Replicator 5th Generation and the Replicator+, the printer is limited to the relatively benign PLA plastic. This means a heated bed isn't required, the PLA is a natural-based, relatively non-toxic material, and is far less prone to warping than ABS.
But even so, different PLA filaments require different print settings in terms of novel heat and surface geometry.
The old MakerBot Desktop software, for the older MakerBot model, supported all this customization, from the settings on the device and extruder temperatures, to print speeds at different areas for rafts and raft bases and so forth, to the types of infill and the density, to the various properties of the model, to customization of the raft -- which would solve the rafting problem I've talked about -- to detail options for support and bridging, and of course how you can use the extruder and some capabilities for that.
These options are not available in MakerBot Print, the slicing and control program that comes with the new MakerBot Replicator+. In MakerBot Print, you can set the layer height, you can specify the number of shells, you can set your infill, and you can turn on and off supports and rafts. And that is it. There is no other customization available.
This lack of customization limits the ability to easily fix the rafting problem. It also limits users' ability to choose filaments from manufacturers other than MakerBot and to be able to successfully print with them. While MakerBot wisely doesn't use the filament DRM gimmicks we've seen from some other manufacturers, preventing the ability to customize print settings is, itself, something of a lock-in.
To be fair, I don't consider this a deal breaker because this is a software issue. When an entirely new piece of software is released as an update, it often takes a few revisions before some lower-priority features of the older software are included in the new code.
Therefore, I am reasonably sure we'll see this fixed sometime soon. In addition, there's a pretty good chance that Simplify3D will support the Replicator+ and give you all the sorts of capabilities you would normally need in a highly flexible slicer.
But both because of the lack of flexibility and -- of more importance -- because of the raft removal problem, this is something I will be watching and following up with.
Networking with a hotspot is built into the new Replicator+. The Replicator+ is also tuned to work with a smartphone application. Although the control panels are identical between the two machines, the Replicator+ is specifically designed to work with a smartphone to control everything from filament removal, to bed heating, to starting and pausing prints.
I had some problems initially when I tried to set up the Replicator+. When I tried to set it up, I found that I wasn't able to get the wired Ethernet connection to work with the Replicator+, but once I did a firmware update over Wi-Fi, it worked, and it's now working nice and solidly.
I mentioned earlier this year that the MakerBot folks had introduced the Smart Extruder+. The Smart Extruder+ is also included with the new machine. What this means is that the filament types haven't changed, because this extruder is designed specifically for PLA.
Now that's, in many cases, really good because ABS is kind of toxic. When I print ABS in my garage, it gets really nasty in there. When it's very, very hot in the summer, I don't want to open the garage door. So it becomes, really, almost a toxic space. I try to print PLA more, simply because it's a much more pleasant thing to work with.
PLA is also a really good all around filament. MakerBot has said that they're introducing a new tough PLA, which is apparently much stronger. I'll get that in soon. When I do, I'll test it, and we'll look at what that can do. This new PLA from MakerBot is intriguing, because if they're going to be introducing that, they might introduce other PLA formats as well. That could expand the use of this printer quite a bit.
I talked earlier about the older MakerBot Desktop software vs. the newer MakerBot Print software and dinged it a bit for lack of customization features. But there are some substantial benefits to MakerBot Print in terms of visualizing the slicing of your model.
The slicing capability in the MakerBot Desktop, while it sliced very well, the visualization was done in a pixelated black and white image, reminiscent of the original 1984 Mac paint program (before grayscale and color were invented). The problem with having crude slicing visualization is you often need to see exactly what the structure is that you're building so you can solve problems in 3D print production prior to sending an object to the printer.
By contrast, the MakerBot Print software produces much higher quality visualization. Visualization is finally provided in color. You can also differentiate areas of your print that are support, the model material, and what layer you're working on. So this is a very substantial improvement over the older MakerBot Desktop, and is something that was definitely overdue and I'm very glad to see it.
Let's talk about performance and testing of these two printers. I did an extensive series of performance tests, which are best seen in the accompanying video. I wanted to see when they're put to the test using their defaults, how do they perform, what's the quality of the models, how do they do with supports, how do they do with overhangs? How well do they actually do the job they're supposed to do, which is produce 3D prints?
I decided to use two different models for torture testing. I used this castle model, which has all sorts of interesting advantages in terms of testing its performance. I also used this Yoda model. And as you might imagine, Yoda's very long ears are a bit of a challenge to print.
I want to make a shout out to Joel Telling, who has the YouTube channel 3D Printing Nerd, for suggesting the castle. Here's a link to his video, which shows all the details of why this castle is so useful for performance testing. Here's the castle model on Thingiverse.
I also want to do a shout out to Angus Deveson, who runs the Maker's Muse YouTube channel. He suggested the Yoda for printer testing. In this video, you can see why he chose Yoda as one of his performance testing models. Here's where you can download your own testing Yoda from Thingiverse.
What about speed? MakerBot claims in their press release [ PDF] that "the Replicator+ is approximately 30 percent faster" than the older Replicator 5th Generation. Normalizing for layer height, I did find the new machine to be faster, but not 30 percent faster. Overall, adjusting for the difference in default layer heights between the two printers, I found the Replicator+ to be 11 percent faster for my two torture test models.
Of course, two models are far from an exhaustive or complete test of performance and, hey, always nice to have any speed improvement. It's not 30 percent, but I'll take it.
With that, let's wrap it up, and I'll tell you what I think overall.
A lot has changed in the 3D printing world in the two and a half years since MakerBot's previous model, the 5th Generation, was released.
MakerBot has had some interesting challenges. They've had some leadership changes. They've had some focus changes, and they moved their manufacturing from New York City to off shore.
There have also been some user problems with regard to the MakerBot 5th Generation in terms of both the move from an open source model to a proprietary model and due to some performance issues. Many of these were solved by the Smart Extruder+.
This brings us to an interesting question: Is the Replicator+ too little, too late?
Well to answer that we need to decide, does it serve a need, and does it provide value? For business, the answer is definitely a yes. The new Replicator+ is a business-oriented printer, not a hobbyist printer, and it shows in a lot of its capabilities.
I think moving away from hobbyists is good. MakerBot has worked on increasing its capabilities, reliability, and added the ability to split prints among multiple machines. MakerBot, who once appealed primarily to hobbyists, now has different focus from the folks who want to tinker with their machines. MakerBot is now squarely focusing on meeting the needs of business and education.
What of the machine? What do we think of this machine, the Replicator+ versus the 5th Generation?
There are a few negatives. First, my biggest question is: will the flexible build plate break with some too enthusiastic attempts to pull models off the plate? Will students break the plate trying to remove a model from the print bed? Will a business user summon his or her inner Hulk to give it a super-twist to remove an object? Will it snap?
Those are questions I really don't know the answer to, but we'll see. My guess is it's probably not going to be too much of an issue, because people don't want to break their 3D printer. So, hopefully users will flex with care.
The bigger question has to do with the rafting problem that I found with this printer. Fortunately, that's clearly a software issue, so I expect that to be fixed relatively quickly. The earlier MakerBot Desktop software produced really excellent rafts and I think it's really the simple fact that you can't adjust all the parameters in the new MakerBot Print software that limits it. I can't imagine that's going to be something we're going to see in the long term.
In the meantime, you can probably use Simplify3D with the new Replicator+ and create your own configurations for everything. Simplify3D works with the Replicator 5th Generation. Given that the 5th Generation has basically the same software interface in its panel and the same extruder, there's a pretty good chance that Simplify3D will also work with the Replicator+, although I haven't yet tested it.
So what about the good?
Well as I said earlier, the new machine is quite similar because it's using the same frame. But having a more robust gantry and a more robust extruder is a really good thing. The slight speed increase is also a benefit. Automatic bed leveling is good as well.
The benefit of increasing the build volume and making it easier to manage the build volume is great. The new Replicator+ is a $2,000 dollar printer, while the older Replicator 5th Generation was a $2,500 printer. The new printer offers a lot of build area for a $2,000 printer. That's a really big build area for that amount.
The bottom line is this: if you've got a 5th Generation printer and you like it, you're probably not going to toss it out in order to replace it with the Replicator+.
But, if you're adding a new printer, or you're choosing a printer and you want a large build area and you want a robust environment, then the MakerBot Replicator+ is probably the printer for you.
It's a good printer. Yes, it's got some issues, because it's brand new, but I think in a couple months as more software updates come out, we're going to find that this is an excellent printer for the capacity and the cost.
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