First Impressions: Makerbot Replicator Z18

I give this printer 7.9 out of 10

Note: I have only had this printer for about a week, so these are only my first impressions. After I have had this printer for longer, I will make a follow up review.

Who is this printer for? Professionals, Professionals and Professionals

The Makerbot Replicator Z18 is clearly intended for the professional. With a large price tag of $6500 (without shipping), you are really going to have to be ready to print some serious stuff for this printer to pay you back. At first glance, you can see that this printer is huge, with a massive build volume of 30.5 x 30.5 x 45.7 cm and weighing in at around 80 pounds, the hardest part of setup was moving the printer! Speaking of setup, setting up the Z18 was super simple. I had the printer up and printing within 20 minutes. I would even say that setting up the Z18 was easier then setting up the Replicator 2! (The Replicator 2 was very easy to setup). Although this printer is big, it comes with an even sturdier frame! I mean this thing is solid; you would really have to be shaking this thing hard for even a slight mess up in your print (do to the shaking). The Z18 also comes with a very nice display in the bottom right hand corner. This display is very easy to navigate, and makes controlling the printer a lot easier. This display also seems much more thorough then the old one on the Replicator 2.

Speaking of controls, you can access this printer through Wi-Fi, Usb Cable, Usb Drive, and Ethernet. I’ve found the Wi-Fi Printing to be a bit slow, but it’s definitely a nice touch. The Z18 also comes with a camera (like all 5th generation printers). The camera isn’t particularly good, but it works if you want to check in on your prints. (You have to be printing something tall though, because the camera is positioned pretty far down). I’ve also noticed that the software the Z18 uses (Makerbot Desktop) has improved dramatically for 5th Generation printers. For example instead of saying “Printing” in the control bar at the bottom, it says “Homing” or whatever the printer happens to be doing. The monitor tab now also includes a space showing a live feed from the camera. This is definitely nice if you want to see what the printer happens to be doing.

Although Makerbots big thing for their 5th generation printers is their smart extruder (more on this later), they also include many other nice features. For example it comes with an auto leveling build platform. This is really nice, except for the fact that it takes a while. It also levels the build plate assuming you are going to print with a raft, so you need to either print with a raft or manually over ride the Z offset. This is a relatively simple process that you do in Makerbot desktop. The Makerbot Replicator Z18 also features an enclosed heated build chamber. This is nice for printing in areas that might have small breezes. Unfortunately, the Z18 does NOT come with a heated build platform, so you are STILL stuck with printing in PLA. If Makerbot is going to advertise something as being for the professional they NEED to put a heated build platform in their machine. The Makerbot Replicator Z18 also comes with two relatively bright lights to light up the whole machine. This just adds to the elegance of the Z18. Speaking of elegance, you really have to hand it to the Makerbot design team on their 5th generation printers. For example, the filament tray slides in under the machine, and the filament feeds up through the printer without you seeing it. The machine also comes with a lid, so you can’t see many moving parts.

Next up is Makerbots next big feature, the smart extruder. It is supposed to be, well, smart! It has features like filament detection (for running out of filament) and is held on with magnets so you can easily swap out broken extruders. I have very mixed feelings about this extruder. First of all, when it works, it works very well. I have produced some very high quality prints with their smart extruder. Some prints even look glossy straight off the printer! On the other hand, on my SECOND day of having the printer, the smart extruder started giving me thermocouple errors! Sound familiar? If not, check out my review of the Makerbot Replicator 2 here (you may have to scroll down a bit). Anyway, the smart extruder told me to disconnect and reconnect the extruder (remember it is held on with magnets). When I did, the printer gave me an error (because the extruder wasn’t attached), which the previous error (the thermocouple error) told me to dismiss before hand. Anyway, I disconnected and reconnected the extruder and that seemed to fix the problem. Unfortunately, shortly after I got the same error. So I did the same thing where I disconnected the extruder. Eventually I was getting this error so frequently I literally needed to stand by and babysit the printer. What the errors don’t tell you (or the instruction manual) is that you have to let the extruder cool (which takes a good ten minutes) before de-attaching the smart extruder. Otherwise, the smart extruder will clog. Of course, this happened to me. About halfway through a print of a feather, I got the filament jam error. The error told me to unload and reload the filament. I attempted to do this, but the filament was so jammed that it wouldn’t unload. I attempted doing this a few more times, but no matter what I tried the filament wouldn’t come out. Apparently, now you have to take apart your smart extruder! Unfortunately, to do this you need to unload the filament! This left me with only one option, to buy another smart extruder. Luckily, I had heard of this happening before and I had ordered another smart extruder before hand. You can order the smart extruder here.

When the new extruder arrived, I immediately installed it into the machine. Then I loaded in some new filament. Luckily, now that I knew to cool the extruder (there are forums online) the new extruder didn’t jam at all! The new extruder also didn’t present me with any more thermocouple errors! So far the new extruder has yet to fail once, and the print quality is outstanding!

Now before I conclude, I would personally like to thank my good friend Brad Feld. Brad has been incredibly generous to me, and has loaned me both of my Makerbot machines (he was an investor in Makerbot). Without him this blog would not have been possible. For more great insights from Brad I recommend you follow him on Twitter.

In conclusion:

Makerbot has mostly delivered on their promise to create a professional 3d printer. It produces some amazing quality parts, pretty consistently. Makerbot has designed an amazing printer, with an okay extruder. This printer is truly for the professional and can create anything that you want it to (in PLA). All those reasons and more is why I believe that this printer could truly create some epic 3d stuff.

Pros:

  1. Build Volume
  2. Design
  3. Heated Build Chamber
  4. Detailed Display
  5. Fully Enclosed (with lid)
  6. Sturdy
  7. Reliability
  8. Auto Level Build Plate

Cons:

  1. Smart Extruder Design (easily clogged)
  2. Only for Professionals (because of price)
  3. Takes up a lot of space
  4. Takes a while to heat up/calibrate
  5. Needs to print with rafts (unless you calibrate Z offset)
  6. NO HEATED BUILD PLATE!
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