March 13, 2013

MakerBot Replicator2 Out of the Box (OOTB) experience

One of my CES highlights was visiting the MakerBot booth and getting some time with their CEO, Bre Pettis. While I've toyed with an earlier MakerBot at work, I wanted to interact with a Replicator2 in person and I wanted to geek with its makers. I got to meet Bre and members of the MakerBot team, and by the time I left CES, I knew it was time to take the plunge. In the middle of the desert driving back from Las Vegas to the Silicon Valley, I placed the order for my own Replicator2.

The MakerBot team are very nice, BTW. A big selling point for me.

So a few days ago, after an eight week backlog/production period, the box arrived!

replicator box

The future in a ~50lb box ;-)

This was my first 3D printer, and it wasn't cheap. Unboxing this had the nervousness of new, unexplored territory combined with the "no one reads the f*$cking manual" attitude of a seasoned tech geek. I was more slow, more deliberate in my unboxing, because I've heard horror stories about assembling 3D printers, leveling the print plate, dealing with arcane software, etc. Let's see if the MakerBot Replicator2 is really the "Macintosh moment" of 3D printing, eh?

Opening the box put the printer in plain sight for me, wrapped in the biggest cloth shopping bag I've seen outside of Ikea.

printer in a bag

What I will do with that bag, I have no idea. If the MakerBot team thinks I'm taking my Replicator on field trips to friends, etc., they must be nuts. I don't want to risk breaking a very expensive printer, let alone re-leveling it every time it is bagged up.

Bag aside, the printer's vitals are tied down with some serious zip ties. I broke a pair of scissors trying to cut those zip ties, and scratched the paint on the Replicator in two places. And this was while being very careful. This printer was seriously protected on its cross-country voyage to me. Speaking of the packaging, here is what the packaging looks like when most the printer parts are out of the box.

packaging

Outside of the "printer in a bag", there are two removable sections in the box with printer parts.

more parts

One was obviously the external power supply, and I guessed (accurately) that the bubble wrap held the print plate.

parts is parts

Another section had the manual, a bag-o-parts and tools, and a spool of clear PLA material. It wasn't clear to me when I ordered the printer that the Replicator2 shipped with PLA filament, so I ordered another spool in a cool blue color.

cool blue PLA filament

The manual has a significant addendum page inserted that you simply must read. This printer installation is not a "f*$ck the manual" scenario. After looking at the parts, I figured out how it was going to come together, but a lay person pulling this out of the box would not have a Mac moment. Even if you follow the manual's steps, there are some "huh?" moments and some things that should be documented that are not.

As I mentioned previously, cutting the zip ties keeping the printer's vitals strapped down requires a feat of Herculean strength. I actually had to remove the side panels, not documented, to get better cutting points for some of the zip ties.

side panel

Speaking of the side panels, what are they really for? This picture is after I removed side panel, cut the zip cords, then re-attached the side panel. They are super easy to remove (6 hex screws), but have no glass or material in the middle. Remove them and you have the bare metal frame, which does the structural support work. The side panels make it harder to stick your hand into the printer at an un-opportune time, but if you are going to do that, you are not the smartest person to begin with. It almost seems like they are there to be replaced with cooler, personalized versions you make yourself? Or a legacy from a sealed design where the side panel was not so "ventilated"? I do not know.

Following the instructions on hardware setup is quick and easy. I was ready to power on the device within 15 minutes of un-boxing the parts and finding the manual, and 10 of that was trying to figure out how to cut the zip ties without damaging the printer or stabbing myself.

The leveling process for the print plate initially had me super worried. I've heard so many horror stories about this. On the Replicator2, once you power on the printer, the on-screen LED walks you through this process. You turn three screws underneath the plate and you are done. Sounds easy, right? My two comments on this process are:

  1. You can follow the on-screen instructions or the manual, but when you try to do both at once, it gets confusing. More than once I followed the manual instructions first, only to realize I was "ahead" of where the on-screen process wanted me to be because the on-screen instructions were going to take me through the same process. Ugh.
  2. Level is so freaking subjective. There is no automated printer test to tell you everything is ok. For it to be level, you are supposed to fit a small card between the print plate and the print head with some friction, but no damage to the card. Ok, what is some friction?! It took some time for me to get the process of leveling figured out, and I winged it when it comes to "is there the right amount of friction"

After about 10-15 minutes of wondering whether I was level, my geek courage kicked back in and decided to say f**k it. If it wasn't level, the first print would be all messed up and I'd relevel. Onward and upward. This picture is the MakerBot while I was leveling the print plate.

leveling print plate

One massive tip. MakerBot wisely ships the Replicator2 with a few sheets of 3M painters tape in the correct dimensions for the print plate. Every person I've ever talked to says to not print directly onto the print plate. So the manual has you putting the painters tape on the print plate before either installing the print plate or leveling it? NOPE! So I leveled it first, then put the tape in, even though the instructions don't say to do this (or say not to). Guess what putting the tape on after leveling does?! Changes the leveling, simply by cutting down the distance between the plate and the print head!!!

Skipping ahead, my first print stuck massively to the print plate (tape), in part because the printer isn't properly leveled. Reading the "FAQ" section, it says to then put in the painters tape because things might stick to the print plate?! Argh! 

I'd recommend MakerBot change the manual and document the user recommended sequence of installing the painters tape then leveling the printer.

After that, the preparation sequence was pretty clear. I had the same problem of manual versus on-screen when it came to loading the filament. I read the manual, jammed the filament in position, only to find the on-screen instructions telling me to start that sequence from the beginning. By now I decided to only follow the on-screen instructions, and the rest of the voyage was easy.

One small point. MakerBot puts the required SD card into the Replicator2 SD card slot, but it is not fully inserted? Are they worried about damage during shipping if inserted. One little push and some sample models are ready to be printed. The following photo is the printer working on my first 3D print, Mr. Jaws.

first print

In roughly one hour I went from closed box to printing my first 3D model. The manual was mildly helpful, but the on-screen instructions do most of the heavy lifting without any need to read the manual. Once the manual says to power on the printer, I'd suggest mostly just following the on-screen instructions from that point.

My first 3D model looked ok, but it was massively stuck to the print plate. I found some great advice on YouTube about tools to pry underneath the model to pop it off without damaging the model. Think very thin but strong food spatulas, which luckily my wife had.

I can't honestly tell if there is a big problem with my first 3D print because I have no frame of reference, but it looks quite OK and now I can start to experiment!

I'd give the overall experience a B to a B+. For something as complicated as a 3D printer, this is a pretty good score. I think MakerBot could get an A in this out of box experience if they grabbed some good CE folks who know OOTB and tighten some of the documentation and actual packaging (zip cords). The docs are better than geek documentation but not meant for a lay person.

My next post will be on the 3D software side of things, using Thing-a-verse to get new models, and how things are going after I've printed ~10 different objects.

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