Moving on from Makerbot

Samurai Kengear2 Comments

It’s true – it is time to move on from our love / hate relationship with our Makerbots.

Why We Have to Change

…our Makerbot Replicator 2 printers are just not as reliable as we need them to be.

As we gear up for our new projects here at the dojo we have to be confident we can keep up with our production needs and the demands that regular content production will bring. This has brought to a head a problem we have been working around for a while, namely that our Makerbot Replicator 2 printers are just not as reliable as we need them to be.

The capability to create the part you need, when you need it is transformational. It changes everything about how you design, create and execute projects. For that matter, it fundamentally alters the type of projects you can tackle. Like so many others we have come to rely on our printers… they are no longer an optional extra or an experiment.

Our printers have to be reliable, functional tools… not temperamental divas.

Why not Another Makerbot?

You will notice I specified the bots themselves in that first sentence, not the company. We never really felt that we had a relationship with Makerbot. They were always like a cheerful but distant relative who showed up every now and then on holidays, took everyone out to diner and promised they would stay in touch this time, really. We all know how that turns out, right?

…there was never the impression that the Makerbot company proper considered us significant at all.

No,there was never the impression that the Makerbot company proper considered us significant at all. This is not to say that my interactions with them have been unpleasant. The staff at the Manhattan retail store was always helpful, the social media team seems attentive and the support team (when I can reach them) is always professional and do their best to make things right.  In fact the last two support tickets I have had with Makerbot involved them sending me replacement parts at no charge even though the unit in question is well past warranty. I am still waiting on the second promised delivery by the way.

The thing is, all this kindness is a layer on top of an underlying ambivalence that ultimately shows through. The machines themselves are the same way, some good choices and fantastic external design over the top of cost cutting measures best described as short-sighted and others that it is hard not to see as openly customer hostile.

With the acquisition of Makerbot by Stratasys this already strained relationship with a community that felt they were abandoned has only gotten larger. Clearly this is a corporation looking to land much bigger fish than we are, and that shows.

Even if there was a reason to stay with Makerbot, it would mean buying into the Gen5 series of machines, and I cannot in polite company express all the ways I will say “no” to that idea.

The Replicator 2 Experience

Collectively those of us associated with the dojo interact daily with 3 Makerbot Replicator 2 units and have recommended about the number to clients over the years. I can honestly say that I do not remember a time when at least one of those 3 machines was not acting cranky or just plain out of commission.

…the Replicator 2 series is rightly referred to as the last great Makerbot for a reason.

No doubt there are many in the audience who have had a much better experience with their Rep2’s. The 3d printer google group I frequent has a number of folks on it that are quite fond of the unit and the Replicator 2 series is rightly referred to as the last great Makerbot for a reason. It is possible that we are just not “doing it right”, but probably not. None of us are mechanically inept and we have experience with robotic and micro-controller systems. These are just touchy machines.

Some of that touchiness is of course inherent in 3d Printers at this price point and simply must be factored into the TCO of working with these machines.  When you think about it we are asking a mechanical system to be repeatably accurate to the sub millimeter level while managing the complex problem of heat induced state change and flow dynamics. In one sense it is kind of amazing it works at all and I think we all appreciate that. The rest of it? Well a lot of that can be laid at the feet of the design itself.

The Rep2 on my workbench was purchased in March of 2013 for just over $2,900 when you add in Makercare, NY tax and some PLA. Since that time it has frustrated and pleased me like few other artifacts I have ever owned.

In another post will be details on the upgrades that have been done on our “alpha” machine and discussion of what worked and what didn’t. One of the really great things about the Rep2 is that there is a thriving aftermarket of parts and upgrades. Without that, we would not have stuck with them as long as we did.

All in all? I look back on the Makerbot years the same way I do my first girlfriend… with nostalgia, gratitude and affectionate frustration.

Wish List

There are fairly specific criteria for the next 3D printer to come into the dojo. These are based on our experience as well as the knowledge gleaned from haunting the places the guys who really are experts hold forth.

  • Direct Drive Extruder – I know a lot of folks love their Bowden extruders and the Ultimaker and Airwolf have great reputations but we have way too many filaments to experiment with to add that complexity into the mix.
  • All Metal Hot End – The ability to work with the up and coming filaments means being able to drive to higher temperatures than needed by PLA or ABS. We need the ability to mount a hot end that can handle this. Preferably this is the standard hot end, but if it is an upgrade that’s fine.
  • High End Construction – As much metal as we can get in a sturdy arrangement that can handle being used like a tool, not admired like an art piece. That means a metal frame, strong rods or preferably linear rails and significant attention paid to being able to replace parts as needed.
  • Heated Bed Option – Filament flexibility again.
  • Dual Extruder Option – Working with hybrid prints of flexible and rigid materials opens up a lot of great design options, and dual extruders is the pathway here. With it as well comes the option of dissoluble support material.
  • Strong Community Ties  – One of the problems with the Makerbot is how cut off from parts of the community you are due to the proprietary nature of it’s communication protocols. No Octoprint for instance. Not only should the vendor have a strong community of its own users, but be respected by and willing to reach out to the larger maker world.
  • Tinker Friendly – We hack stuff. It’s what we do. While I don’t expect a vendor to offer no cost warranty coverage for things I might have altered I would like to work with one that is not tinker phobic either.

Honestly? This didn’t leave a lot of awesome options… but there is at least one.

What’s Next

Therein lies an awesome story for another day involving the very cool folks over at Printrbot

It will be a while before we decide what to do with our Rep2’s. They will certainly stay in-house for comparison and as backup to the new machines that are on the way. Eventually they will probably be up for sale.

What new machines you ask? Therein lies an awesome story for another day involving the very cool folks over at Printrbot. For now think “dynamic duo” and read up on the Metal Plus and Simple Metal.