ISTE Day 1 Expo

Needless to say, I was a tad overwhelmed with the sheer number of exhibitors. Main stops were Edmodo, FormLabs, LittleBits, Stratasys, and MakerBot.

MakerBot people were nice and apologetic about their devices, as usual. They all seemed a bit preoccupied.

FormLabs people were great and super nice. They answered so many of my questions :)

FiLamenting

Filament jams are probably the most obnoxious errors to run into. They happen too often with Makerbots and it means that the estimated print times are never even close to accurate.

It is incredibly frustrating because a filament jam is the most vague error a printer can have. So much extra time is spent trying to discover the cause of the jams before you ever get to actually fixing them. To give you an idea, here are just some of the things that could be happening when there is a filament jam:

  • the build plate is not level (which could be for a number of reasons)
  • the Smart Extruder is inoperable (which could also be for a large number of reasons)
  • the object being printed has too much overhang
  • there are impurities in the filament
  • the room temperature or humidity level is problematic
  • the filament is loaded incorrectly or tangled in the machine

…and so on and so on. The possibilities are practically endless and the solutions are equally numerous.

What’s worse is that often the Makerbot Replicators will fuss about having a filament jam, but if you tell them to keep printing or if you load the filament without unloading, they are usually fine and dandy. I have decided to call this a phantom jam and I also believe that maybe the large printers are hypochondriacs. The Makerbot Replicator Minis are the exact opposite. They are similar to a person who realizes they are walking in the wrong direction but are too terribly embarrassed to turn around so they just continue on hoping they’ll get somewhere. I say this because too many times I have seen a Mini continue printing when the extruder is clogged, nothing is coming out of the nozzle, or anything else that is typically considered a filament jam. When they do, they just print spider webs in thin air and make a dreadful mess everywhere. It gives me even more reason to despise filament jams.

Just the other day, I was printing some fraction circle manipulatives on RoboBot, Pinny, and ProdigalBot. Of course, ProdigalBot had no problems whatsoever, and RoboBot just had a single phantom jam. Pinny, however, was a total diva. She wanted constant attention and in the span of an hour and a half (well, what was SUPPOSED to be an hour and a half), she jammed eleven–yes, eleven!–times. I wanted so badly to blame the filament instead of Pinny because she’s normally so sweet and cooperative, but most of the time the filament was perfectly fine. Even now I’m not entirely sure what her problem was and if that doesn’t show how upsettingly vague filament jams are, I don’t want to know what will.

<Alfred>

MakerBot Customer Support and MakerCare

It is terrible to say it, but Makerbots really are not the most reliable machines. As I have mentioned before, every machine has its own personality and most of the time if I’m not fixing a jam, I’m probably on the phone with Makerbot about something else. Since April, Dr. Wan and I have had to repackage and send back two printers. In a few days, we will be packing up six extruders and one of our Makerbot Replicator Minis to send back as well. The amount of time I have spent on the phone with Makerbot Customer Support and MakerCare has be so extraneous that I have actually gotten to know one of the customer service representatives, Kerry. However, I can gladly say that MakerBot has some of the greatest support teams and customer service representatives that I have ever had the need to work with.

With Dr. Wan’s personal printer, a FlashForge, there is a label printed on the front stating “For customer service, contact Mr. Tang,” followed by a very odd email address. With Makerbot, there is 24/7 customer service and extra MakerCare can be purchased for each machine. Their headquarters are in New York, which means that the customer service representatives are all somewhat locally based. No matter how much I trash talk the Makerbots’ abilities and bipolar personalities, I can always count on a friendly New York or Jersey native to “toawk” me through my Makerbot problems. The customer service representatives at Makerbot are always prepared to help and never start the conversation with, “Did you try turning it off and on again?” They offer solutions clearly and simplistically without sounding impatient or agitated with my ignorance. They use vocabulary any average citizen could comprehend, avoiding long, drawn-out sentences that could make them sound arrogant or superior. In the rare case that they do not have the answer I need, they can send me to someone who does, and I always get an email afterwards that details the steps I was given over the phone. When I still cannot solve a problem, no one blames me or tells me that the it just cannot be fixed. Instead, Makerbot will gladly replace parts and machines for any reasonable issue. Every time something has had to be shipped back, the shipping information is quickly available and new parts and machines arrive within the next week. The best part to me, though, is that I don’t have to put the phone on speaker and dance around to elevator music for forty-five minutes; calls are always answered in a timely manner. The longest I have ever been on hold with Makerbot Customer Support was about three and a half minutes. I doubt anyone could even say that about a phone call to the local Wal-Mart.

If you are someone who likes having the option of calling customer service at two in the morning or if you often find yourself need quick and helpful responses, Makerbot definitely offers what you need. Their readiness to assist and ability to give effective solutions practically eliminates my negative feelings towards their products’ dependability because the problems can always be solved.

<Alfred>

The Personalities of MakerBots

Something I have learned working with Makerbots for the last two months is that every single machine has its own “lovely” personality. It sounds crazy, I know, but it’s true; even Makerbot says “‘Each model of our fifth-generation MakerBot Replicator 3D Printers has its own printing characteristics.’ The teams continually test each model to learn how it behaves…” which clearly shows the company is aware of the personality each machine possesses. In working with so far a total of eight Makerbot machines, I have seen a wide array of personas ranging from the quiet and diligent demeanor of our ProdigalBot to the needy and attention-seeking manner of IronBot. As new machines arrive, they are quickly given a Bot name based on the personalities they display after the first few prints. Some of the machines include RoboBot, a Makerbot Replicator that remains reliable and hardworking through every large print, IronBot, another Replicator that needs constant attention and praise to get anything right, and Homie, a Makerbot Replicator Mini that constantly displays homing and thermocoupling errors. [Side note: Homie will be going back to Makerbot within the next few days because his issues are persistent and irreparable.] Sometimes when printing, I can almost hear crying coming from BatBot, probably because we had to send both of his parents back for various reasons. With Pinny (she has a push pin stuck in her lower compartment, but she embraces her minor disability and overcomes adversity), it always sounds as though she is singing an upbeat Disney-style working song. It may not seem possible, but there are definite distinctions between the sounds and behaviors of all of the machines.

The point here is that even among machines that come from the same company or that are the same model, no two printers are alike. Every 3D printer has its quirks, its strengths, and its imperfections. Naming and getting to know our printers has helped me to know what to expect out of each one as well as made it easier to notice when something is not typical for a particular machine. If I decide to use Smuckers, our consistently jammed extruder, I know to expect extruder jams often throughout a print; however, if I end up with any errors with ProdigalBot, I know that something is probably wrong and troubleshooting is in my near future.

<Alfred>

Our Cast

Since we have one of each of FF Creator Pro and FormLabs 1+, and they behave like they should, they don’t have names other than “Creator Pro” and “1+”.

MakerBots on the other hand…

  • IronBot – A Replicator 5th gen that requires constant stroking of the ego to reassure that the filament jam is not a filament jam, and to continue printing.
  • RoboBot – A Replicator 5th gen that has been printing fine. I’m holding my breath because of the other MakerBot’s issues.
  • Pinny – A Replicator Mini that was printing fine but had a slight rattling noise whenever she was moved. We think there may be a pin stuck or something.
  • Homie – A Replicator Mini that constantly displays homing and thermocoupling errors. He’s louder than the rest and works fine on the rare occasion he works.
  • ProdigalBot – A Replicator Mini that has worked from day one. ProdigalBot is the litmus test for extruders. If they fail on ProdigalBot, the extruder needs to go.
  • (Returned) ScarFace – A Replicator Mini that printed fine, but when it came in, had a deep scratch on the front that someone tried to cover up with a Sharpie.

IMG_7070_2IMG_7071_2

  • (Returned) Picasso (Dali) – A Replicator Mini that could not print straight for the life of him. Picasso replaced ScarFace. I almost regret returning ScarFace if these printers were going to be this unreliable.

IMG_7196

This was supposed to be a cube with the CSU logo on top.

  • BatBot – A Replicator Mini that printed great out of the box. BatBot was a refurbished mini that customer service sent out because I would have to wait a month for the a new one. Being in the middle of STEM Honors camp, waiting was not an option especially because of the other jamming extruders. BatBot replaced Picasso.

A Start at Troubleshooting

Through my research and experience with the Makerbot 3D printers, I have been able to identify several common problems users run into. The following are some tips and tricks to help improve your 3D printing experience. Enjoy! 

*Before trying to troubleshoot any issues, always ensure that Makerbot Desktop and the printer’s firmware are both fully updated.*

Problem #1: One issue I have with a lot with the Makerbot Replicator is the extruder nozzle is either too far from the print bed and the filament is not sticking or the nozzle is too close and scrapes away build tape, occasionally scratching the build plate glass in the process.

In my case, this is often because of how much the printer is transported and jostled. This can also happen over time with the general shaking of the build plate during printing and when removing prints.

To fix this problem, you should first relevel the build plate. It is an agitating process, but it is well worth it to prevent build plate damage and failed prints.

If the problem persists, connect the printer to Makerbot Desktop and edit the z-axis offset. Go to Devices > Device Preferences to edit the z-axis offset. The detailed instructions for this process for Makerbot Replicator Mini can be found here. For Makerbot Replicator, the instructions can be found here. The process is very simple and effective.

Problem #2: Makerbot users also have difficulty obtaining well-focused webcam pictures with their Makerbots.

First, find the camera. It is in the front of the machine either on the left or right depending on the printer you have. Then, clean the lens with a lens-safe cloth.

If the problem persists, twist the plastic ring around the lens slightly in one direction. If the camera feed on Makerbot Desktop shows a clearer image, continue making slight adjustments in the same direction until the image is satisfactory. If the camera feed on Makerbot Desktop shows a blurrier image, make slight adjustments in the opposite direction until the image is satisfactory.

Problem #3: Filament jams are the most common problem that I come across. Jams can be caused by a large range of problems such as impurities in the filament, inconsistent filament dimensions, poor extruders, unlevel build plates, and so on.

The first and easiest solution is to tell the printer to continue printing without changing anything. In my experience, this is usually all you have to do to get the Makerbot Replicator to continue.

The second and more helpful solution is to unload the filament, cut off the end high enough to get rid of misshapen filament, and load the filament.

Check to make sure the filament is not caught on anything and is turned the correct direction.

If you are still having problems, check to see that the extruder is not too close to or far from the build plate. If it is either, see Problem #1.

Sometimes cutting off a large amount of filament will solve the problem.

You can also replace the Smart Extruder by following the instructions here. The instructions are the same for most Makerbot 3D printers. This page has great information for when your printer does not recognize the Smart Extruder.

 Level the build plate every time:

  • a new extruder is attached
  • the printer is jostled or transported
  • there is a clicking noise
  • the nozzle is cutting into the build plate tape
  • the filament is blocked from extruding
  • the firmware has been updated
  • the filament looks squiggly on the first few layers
  • the build plate tape is changed
  • the build plate is moved/removed or replaced
  • the purge line is not straight and consistent

This list is far from complete