Makerbot Woes 

I’ve had a 3D printer for a while now and really love the technology.  I especially love sharing the joy and wonder of 3D printing with other people.  While I initially had a lot of issues getting good prints out of my Afinia H279, over time I’ve learned a lot of tips and tricks that make life a lot easier and the one time I’ve had a hardware failure Afinia was very responsive.  With the addition of BuildTak gluestick my H-series printer is a workhorse.  The quality and repeatability I get from it is great.

Makerbot, until recently, has been universally touted as the leader when it comes to hobbyist level, affordable 3D printers.  Unfortunately their latest product line doesn’t deliver.2014-10-14 21.49.34

When I got my Makerbot Replicator Gen5 from a colleague it was already unable to print.  In fact the previous owner had only made one successful print on it despite numerous attempts.

I knew that there was going to be some work to do to get it in shape to print, but I have had my Afinia apart a number of times and fixed clogged print heads, burnt up bed heaters, and a number of other things so I felt up to the task.  Unfortunately Makerbot has made the Gen5 printers unserviceable.  It takes weeks to resolve something as simple as a clogged nozzle.

Here is a quick timeline of my experience.

  • Day 0 – Received Makerbot
  • Day 1 – Spent many hours setting up machine.  Leveling process is really slow and didn’t work the first time through.  Had to re-run the process 3-4x before I was satisfied that the bed was level and the process wasn’t asking me to make notable changes each time.   I spent hours unclogging print head only to have it immediately clog again when resuming printing.
  • Day 2 – Was able to get a small print (a flexy bracelet) out of the machine by unloading/loading filament every-time the extruder started to clog.  I had to do this 4-5 times for this short print and it required me to stand over the machine the entire time.
  • Day 3 – Filed a ticket with Makerbot for the Smart Extruder clogging issue.  Also tried to purchase a second Smart Extruder so that I would have a spare for times like this, but their website would not allow me to checkout. So I filed a second ticket about their website.
  • Day 6 – Received a scripted reply from Makerbot asking me to try a number of things to unclog the extruder.  I replied immediately with numerous screenshots and detailed explanation of the issue.
  • Day 7 – Makerbot support replies saying they will send out a new extruder the same day.
  • Day 14 – Makerbot sent me an email saying they fixed the issue with their web checkout system.  They definitely did not.  I still cannot buy things using my account from their website.
  • Day 20 – I email Makerbot concerned that the extruder hasn’t arrived  Makerbot support replies with a tracking number.
  • Day 22 – Extruder arrives via UPS ground.  Three weeks in we are ready to print.
  • Day 23-29 – Next week of printing goes pretty well.  I put the thing through probably 60 hours of printing and for the most part it isn’t bad.  I had some delimitation issues and issues with small feature print quality that most printers would require some fidgeting and tweaking to improve on.
  • Day 30 – Replacement smart extruder is clogged.  Not fully clogged and just like before it unclogs easily, but within minutes of printing it will become clogged again and there is nothing you can do to fix it.
  • Day 31 –  List this thing on eBay.

This is a timeline of my frustration, but by no means an exhaustive list.  I also ran into numerous bugs in Makerware that maybe didn’t prevent me from getting stuff done, but were really annoying. I also had a lot of issues with parts pulling up from the raft while printing and general delimitation issues.  These things are usually overcome easily by tweaking the extruder temp profile, but given that I was running Makerbot filament using the default Makerbot profile I really expected the prints to come out better and have less issues.  I even have questions about the quality of the Makerbot filament because I have had tried running it in other printers and seem to have more issues with it than other PLA including cheap SainSmart filament.

One last notable thing is that the 5th gen Makerbot is LOUD.  This is not a desktop machine.  Your colleagues will not appreciate you sitting this anywhere near them.  You’ll want to put this thing in a closet or spare room somewhere.

The 5th Generation Replicator is a huge misstep for Makerbot.  They tried to move too fast and fumbled often.

Makerbot is a poster-child for what not to do.

  • Start an open-source product and build up a huge community
  • Raise a bunch of venture capital
  • Close-source the product design
  • Sell out
  • Sue competitors
  • Piss off core community
  • Ship an updated and inferior product

When you are in an emerging market there is a lot of pressure to stay ahead and add features which makes it easy  lose focus on the things that matter.  It is extremely hard to take a step back and identify what those things are.  Being a venture backed company only adds to the pressure.

When the 5th gen Replicator was released, my first reaction was awe for what Makerbot had accomplished; the product images look amazing.  With Makerbot’s reputation for making great products I expected the new generation of products to be even better, more polished and I really wanted to get my hands on one.  Unfortunately their hardware and software is anything but polished and the current generation is a huge step backwards in quality and usability.

During my short time owning a Makerbot, I found out that numerous other folks who were very unsatisfied. Watching Makerbot stumble is a pretty sad ordeal to me, but it is satisfying to see companies who are fully supporting the open-source hardware community like Ultimaker and Lulzbot rise to the occasion while producing products that continually improve and delight.