My first 3D printer, a MakerBot Replicator 5th gen, was almost my last one. I finally decided a year ago to take the plunge and buy my first 3D printer. I thought I did all my research as I decided on a commercial brand of 3D printer like MakerBot.
I liked the sleek look of the 5th gen, and the automatic features like bed leveling and jam detection (which would turn out to happen often). The 5th gen looked like a solid beginner 3D printer that I could use to start a 3D printing business.
As much as I liked the features of the 5th gen, I was not impressed by the price. Online the 5th gen retails for $2,899 + S&H + tax. That was pricey for any 3D printer in its class, and out of my range on a work-study salary.
I decided to cast a wide net and shop around online. I scoured eBay and noticed a lot of used 5th gens for sale, but many that I saw were missing the “Smart” extruders ( I now know why).
I decided to look locally and explore Craigslist. As I searched I found a lot of RipRap projects that people had given up on. As I considered taking a project off someone’s hands, I found the perfect post!!
A engineer was upgrading to the Z18 and unloading his 5th gen! He also was selling the Digitizer 3D scanner and 4 spools of filament! For $2,800 I could score an amazing starting package!
The Odyssey of the 5th Gen Repilcator
I made the call and drove out to a grocery store parking lot to meet the engineer. He showed me everything and we shook hands. I drove home excited for my new future in 3D printing.
When I got home I hit my first problem. Where would I even put the 3d printer? I realized that the filament would go into the cartridge holder in the rear of the printer. But that would mean I would need a space with the headroom to get into the back of the printer. This was going to be a hassle if I wanted to change colors quickly.
I found out later that other spools of filament I purchased would not fit in the cartridge holder, so I would have to 3D print an external spool holder. MakerBot exclusive filament spools are designed to fit exclusively inside their printers, and exclude other brands of 3D filament.
As a beginner, I did not realize how exclusive MakerBot has made their 3D printers. At the time I dismissed the filament spools as a quirk of the 5th gen printer.
Ch.1 The First 3D Prints
I installed the MakerBot Desktop and Digitizer software, fired up the 5th gen and went through the steps to auto level the glass build plate.
I printed up the built in test samples, then followed the recommended steps to calibrate the printer. In a day, I was searching Thingiverse for things to 3D print.
These were the good times with this printer. I learned the essentials about raft, supports, and infill of a 3D print. I learned how to choose and orient files so they would print the best way on the build plate.
I practiced using the Digitizer 3D scanner. I managed to scan a couple things that came close to looking like the original object, but my attentions soon drifted away from the 3D scanner. I still have the 3D scanner, but I have not has a reason to use it. In the future I may play with it more, but for now it’s just collecting dust.
Ch.2 The Calling to Help
I even found files for people with disabilities. I printed up a few fidgets and spinner rings for myself and friends. When I showed them to a friend that is a child physiologist, she was ecstatic! She suggested that I go into business designing and producing these fidgets for people with disabilities. I realized that 3D printing can be used to help people with disabilities.
I decided to put the 5th gen to work. I made some small batches of these fidgets, and explored selling them locally to people with Autism. I even started selling them to the Autism Community Store, which helps people on the Autism spectrum directly. I found a personal calling using 3D printers.
Ch. 3 The Gathering Storm of the 5th Gen
The storm started not with thunder, but the sound of a “click”. The printer made its warning sound, and I saw what would soon become a common message on the screen, “Jam detected”. I went through the procedure to back the filament out and try to load the filament again. Could feel the filament loading into the head, then stopping at the begging of the heat sink. Nothing, the “Smart” extruder was jammed for good.
Fortunately by this point I had a spare extruder head on hand. I figured that I had put a couple hundred hours on the 5th gen, and it was bound to need a new head sometime. It was easy enough to change out and start 3D printing again.
And for a month of 3D printing it did work well. The calm before the storm.
The 5th gen was in the middle of a 6 hr printing job. “Click, Click, be deep beddle beep”, Jam detected.
Again, I follow the instructions on the printer screen. Again, the head is jammed solid at the start of the heat sink.
If insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting a different result, the 5th gen proved me crazy.I put a 3d “Smart” head on the printer, and tried to print again. The printer would barely start a test print before jamming hard.
The electronics in the 5th gen were shot. They could not get the “Smart” head to proper temperature, resulting in the filament jams inside the hot end of the extruder. Due to this temperature problem, I jammed all 3 “Smart” print heads.
Ch. 4 Customer Service Storm
At the time MakerBot was its own company (not the subsidiarity of Stratasys it is today). I worked with tech support, which determined that something inside the printer I could not get to was broken (of course).
When I asked how much it would cost to fix it, the crap storm really started.
Because I had purchased by 5th gen from someone else, the MakerCare plan would not transfer to me. I would have to pay $100 + S & H to ship it to New York for them to fix.
So I boxed it up, lugged it to the post office and wished it well. MakerBot did do a good job of communicating what they did (which was not much) and took a month to get it to me. It turns out that MakerBot was swamped with returns of the 5th gen besides mine, so I can’t complain about the time it took to get it back.
Ch. 6 The Aftermath of the 5th Gen
After I received my repaired 5th gen, I was optimistic that I could 3D print again. I fired it all up again, and returned to 3D printing. For a couple weeks all was well.
Then like a somber church bell, I heard the death knell of the 5th gen printer. “Click, Click, be deep beddle beep”, Jam detected.
I did not want to deal with MakerBot again. It was at this time that I found that other people were having similar problems with the 5th gen, and that Makerbot was involved in a lawsuit due to shoddy 3D printers.
It turns out that MakerBot had flooded the market with shoddy 5th gen printers to inflate it value. Straysey bought MakerBot on their inflated value, and then got stuck with the customer backlash.
Ch.7 The Sinking of the 5th Gen
My 5th gen was sunk. The “Smart” heads would not get to printing temperature, no matter what settings I used on the Desktop program.
I took it to a local 3D printing service to get their second opinion. While they did their best, the smart heads of the 5th gen continued to jam. The service gave me the final prognosis. The printer was dead, the electronics were fried.
I was despondent. My dreams of a 3D printing business were smashed to the sound of “Click, Click, be deep beddle beep”.
I did not trust MakerBot to fix the 5th gen a second time. At that time it was just not worth any further heartache.
I put the 5th gen for sale on eBay for a loss. I sold it to a local hobbyist who gutted it for parts.
I got a Lulzbot Taz 5 3D printer, and I have never looked back.
When I look at MakerBot and its founder Bre Pettis, I see a story of avarice and greed. MakerBot has fallen victim to its own exclusive 5th gen printers. MakerBot sacrificed performance for flash, quality for stock value. While now MakerBot is slowly paying for its greed, it is the consumers and 3D printers that were harmed the most.