First Look at Makerbot's 5th Gen Replicator 3D Printer

Cyrus Tabrizi, 3/18/14


      I recently got my hands on the new Makerbot Replicator 3D printer!!! Thanks to my internship at Cortona Academy (which just received the printer), I can share my first look at the printer with all of you!
      Before I begin, I just want to clarify that this is neither an exhaustive review, nor a comparison of 3D printers. I may indeed bring up my previous experiences with 3D printing up in my descriptions, but the following is intended to serve merely as a summary of my impressions and observations of the printer after a short few hours with it (I'm also writing this as quickly as possible and will likely come back and revise).

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      So.. Where should I begin? Physical attributes? That sounds good. The first thing you may notice is its size. Sitting next to my 15.6 inch Dell Latitude, the new Replicator is quite large. It's not only large, though. It's also extremely heavy. I don't know any specifics, but I'm in my prime and even I struggled to lift this machine. Since it's possible that the desk it was on was secretly a giant magnet, I'll give it another try when I go back to work this weekend. If it is indeed as heavy as it seemed, though, a lot was just lost with regards to the printer's portability (maybe this is to encourage having one at home and one at work).
      Another thing that is immediately visible is the size of the printer relative to the print area.. There is a lot of extra space surrounding the printer bed compared to the Replicator 2's.. So much so that it reminds me of the Thing-o-matic (we'll have to see what the new Replicator Mini looks like to see if that comparsion is better suited elsewhere). The print area has also changed: it seems to have become deeper and more narrow.
      Now that's we've talked a bit about form, let's talk about some function: there are lot of improvements and changes! Firstly, the way the build plate comes off is different: one simply pulls it out towards them instead of fiddling with the clips (I've cut my hands more than once trying to remove build plates from Replicator 2's (don't ask), so this is a seemingly-welcome improvement).

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      The biggest changes are probably to the extruder. Now called the "Smart Extruder," the new extruder has a number of features. Firstly, part of it is supposed to be easily detachable. I didn't see or do this myself, so I won't elaborate much, but reportedly this makes it easier to swap out the hot end if there's a jam or malfunction of some sort. Another feature is that it's supposed to detect when it runs out of filament. Since there doesn't seem to be a tracking device of any sort on the built-in filament spool holder (which is also new), I'm guessing the extruder looks at the space immediately above the hot end to determine whether any more filament is coming in and detects it either with a touch sensor or light sensor of some sort (again, I didn't actually test this for myself). The whole extruder is also much larger, using a different fan position and directing the air downwards differently (now it appears to flow towards the extruder tip and the material below from two opposite directions). The most important difference, though, is that the entire hot end seems to be actuated. During the test print I ran, the whole hot end would jump up and down rapidly. I suppose this can have some utility (there must have been if they decided to implement it), but while I have not seen the benefits of it for myself (I didn't run any comparisons), I would imagine that they would be significant because actuating the hot end as quickly and precisely as it is being done in the new Replicator is likely not a trivial matter.
      Also new is the Hall Effect sensor and light that were added to the extruder for leveling purposes. Thanks to the new LCD, the new Replicator will prompt you when the bed is level (the light will turn white and the screen will bring up a "Continue" button). This basically eliminates the need for feeler guages or other measurement tools. To do the actual leveling, knobs are still used on the bed, but now there are only two instead of three (they're much bigger now than they were before). (The leveling procedure is shown in the video).
      Yet another significant change was to the configuration of the XY carriage. Now, not only are rails being used instead of rods, but the old setup has been replaced with an h-carriage (aka h-gantry). (The attached picture is from a site titled DesignNews.com. Please let me know if it should remove it and I will replace it with a drawing of my own)

In this setup, having both motors run in the same direction at the same speed causes the extruder to go along one axis, while having the motors go at the same speeds in different directions causes it to go along an axis perpendicular to the first. I can explain this further, but you might as well google it. It is notable, because now both motors are fixed to the chassis, reducing the weight on the parts that are moving, and now higher speeds can be achieved in certain directions.

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      Also related are the facts that the two XY stepper motors are now hidden from view behind a secretive wall of black metal, just like every other component in the printer. The cables for the extruder have also been changed to a variety specific to the XY flexing they will encounter (nothing connected to the extruder will bend along the z-axis).
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      The addition of the LCD interface and camera are somewhat obvious so I won't go too deep into those. The new interface is nice because it allows you to see more about your prints before you run them (a preview picture, run time, amount of material that will be used, certain presets etc.). The screen in general looks really good and is used pretty well too.
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Octopus test print! Relatively hassle-free!
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      I have yet to finish writing all my thoughts down, but combined with the video, this is surely a start. Feel free to email me if you have any questions or if you would like me to write about something specific in the future!