Printing Plastic Tchotchkes Was Fun, but MakerBot Was Just Too High-Maintenance

Breaking up with MakerBot

I’ll never forget the day I first met MakerBot. It was August 1, 2012 when he*—a bright, shiny first-generation Replicator—arrived at our Cambridge, MA, office, greeted by screams of delight by a throng of fans. I must admit, I was a bit intimidated and star-struck: MakerBot’s reputation preceded him. He was a rockstar in the DIY community, a true maverick of a machine, ushering in the “Wild West of 3D printing” among our sedate sea of MacBook Air laptops running Adobe InDesign. All we had ever made here before were PDF files, but with MakerBot humming cheerfully in the lounge next to the kitchen, that had all changed. We were now maker-magicians, spinning ABS thread into gold.

At first, it was hard to get any quality time with MakerBot. I’d come into the office in the morning, and he’d already be surrounded by three or four groupies, who were browsing the catalog at Thingiverse, selecting a fresh set of STL models to print: from Mario and Batman to Mayan Robot.


The T-Rex (far left) and Barack Obama figurine (bottom-right) were made with glow-in-the-dark ABS thread (hence “Glowbama”).

But MakerBot didn’t just allow me and my coworkers to print out other people’s models; he offered us the promise of designing our own plastic masterpieces. He came packaged with the open source software ReplicatorG, which provides a nice GUI for doing simple modifications on existing models (scaling, rotating, etc.). ReplicatorG isn’t a tool for constructing models from scratch, however, so I also started experimenting with other 3D rendering applications like Blender, MeshLab, and OpenSCAD.

I was interested in the possibilities in transforming 2D photos into 3D models that MakerBot could print, so I started experimenting with a Python tool called img2scad, which can convert a JPEG image file into a .scad file (convertible to a compatible STL file with OpenSCAD) by transforming each pixel in the image to a rectangular prism whose height is directly proportional to how dark/light the pixel is. When this SCAD model is printed, the output is a photograph embossed into a sheet of plastic. Pretty cool—although, in practice, the results were somewhat lackluster since much of the detail captured in the subtle shading differences among pixels in the source JPEG didn’t get preserved in the conversion to prisms.

I wanted to take things to the next level and actually make 3D replicas of photographs, which is possible by hooking up an XBox Kinect to a Windows machine and using ReconstructME to do a 360-degree scan and convert to STL. I volunteered to be the first guinea pig of this process, which entailed sitting motionless in a swivel chair while one of my coworkers spun me around in a circle at a rate of 0.0000000001 miles per hour, and another coworker aimed the Kinect at my head.

Here was the result:


This is a picture of me holding my head (from the YouTube documentary “MakerBot in Cambridge”).

My plastic doppelgänger looks just like me (white and inert), except he has no eyes or mouth.

Anyway, six months into his residence at the office, MakerBot had become my new BFF. But then a series of unfortunate events occurred that started to test the strength of our bond. One of the qualities I prize most highly when entering into a relationship with a piece of machinery is its dependability, and as time wore on, MakerBot just kept letting me down again and again and again. Here were my three main gripes.

Gripe #1: MakerBot was wicked** slow and glitchy

We live in an age of instant gratification (“You mean I have to wait five seconds for that web page to load? Screw dat!”), and MakerBot just took too @$(&@# long to complete a print. Waiting five hours for your Yoda feels like an eternity; you can play approximately sixty rounds of Candy Crush Saga in that same timeframe (although arguably, staring blankly at the MakerBot is equally intellectually stimulating).

To make matters worse, I’d estimate MakerBot’s failure rate fell in the range of 25%–33%, which meant that there was around a one-in-three chance that two hours in, your Yoda print would fail, or that it would finish but once it was complete, you’d discover it was warped or otherwise defective.

Some of these glitches could be attributed to human error. For example, you forgot to configure the Energy Saver setttings properly on the laptop feeding data to MakerBot via USB, and the laptop went to sleep, causing MakerBot to time out as well. Or you neglected to set the temperature of the MakerBot platform hot enough, and partway through the print, the plastic stopped sticking to it, potentially causing the model to tip over and/or MakerBot to spray a bird’s-nest jumble of plastic thread over it. But other glitches were less foreseeable and preventable, such as molten plastic getting gunked up in the extruder midway through the printing process, resulting in the MakerBot nozzle dancing futilely above your half-finished creation.

Overall, MakerBot was rather finicky and unforgiving when it came to preparation and configuration for printing, which segues nicely into my next gripe.

Gripe #2: MakerBot was wicked high-maintenance

Because of the relatively high chance of errors (see Gripe #1), my colleagues and I developed our own rigmarole of preflight checks to try to mitigate the likelihood of #makerbotfail on any given print. These steps included:

  1. Use ReplicatorG to preheat the extruder to be used to ~235 degrees Celsius.
  2. Detach the filament guide tube from the extruder and remove the filament from the tube.
  3. Manually apply pressure to the filament to push it through the extruder.
  4. If plastic thread is emitted from the extruder nozzle, proceed to step #5. Otherwise, turn off the MakerBot, disassemble the extruder apparatus, clean off any plastic buildup from the components, reassemble the extruder apparatus, and start over at step #1.
  5. Hooray, plastic is being extruded from the MakerBot nozzle! Now see if the MakerBot can automatically extrude plastic all on its own, without you jamming it through the machine. In ReplicatorG, click the “forward” button next to “motor control” to initiate a feed through the extruder. If plastic does not feed through automatically, return to step #3. Otherwise continue on to step #6.
  6. Click “Build” and pray.

We discovered that by going through this preflight process (which takes anywhere from ten to ninety minutes to complete), we could decrease the likelihood of a printer failure by one or two percent.

Gripe #3: MakerBot just plain breaks

After we used MakerBot for about three months, he stopped squirting plastic from his right extruder, no matter what pre-print precautions and preparations we took (see Gripe #2). After examining the extruder mechanism and doing some research, one of my coworkers pinpointed the problem: the Delrin plunger was worn out.

The Delrin plunger is a small, black cylinder whose purpose is to apply pressure against the molten plastic thread to help force it through the MakerBot extruder nozzle. However, apparently this pressure gets applied via a grinding process, which slowly erodes the plunger material until it eventually is no longer able to make contact with the plastic.

But luckily, the MakerBot store offered replacement Delrins for sale, and they were only $6, so I just ordered another one. This served us well for another three months or so, until the Delrin plunger in the left extruder wore out as well. I went back to the MakerBot store, but this time I found that the Delrins were out of stock (and they continue to be unavailable to this date, possibly because first-generation Replicators are no longer being sold).

I was really bummed. One of the two Delrin plungers in the $2,000 MakerBot was busted, the $6 replacement parts were no longer available, and eventually the other Delrin plunger would wear out, and I’d be left with the equivalent of a fried toaster.

But then I had an idea: the Delrin plunger was just a chunk of plastic. What if MakerBot could print a replacement plunger, and regenerate itself back to health like a starfish? And sure, enough, there was indeed some good news: Thingiverse came to the rescue with a model for a plunger replacement. But then some bad news: the replacement plunger just didn’t work. Whether that was because the STL model was not an accurate replica of the bona fide Delrin plunger, or because the actual plunger that MakerBot printed was defective (see Gripe #1), I don’t know. Either way, we were out of luck.

I did some research into some more elaborate contraptions MakerBot could print as replacements for the extruder apparatus, but they required screws and springs and other stuff, and upon further reflection I realized I was not cut out to be a MakerBot repairman.


Not long after the second Delrin plunger failed, I decided it was time for MakerBot and me to go our separate ways (the majority of my colleagues had already jumped ship many weeks prior). Nearly every time I would attempt to print something on MakerBot, I was met with frustration or disappointment because of some snag or another. Dealing with MakerBot was time consuming and depressing, and I decided I just didn’t need that kind of negativity in my life. I deserved better than that!

But I really miss making those plastic tchotchkes. I’ve considered investing in a Replicator 2 (the follow-up to the first-generation MakerBot Replicator), but right now, it still feels too soon to be getting involved with another 3D printer.

I was excited to hear last week of Stratasys’s $400 million acquisition of MakerBot Industries. I hope this move presages further investment in creating high-quality, low-cost 3D printers for the average consumer who wants a reliable device for printing models that doesn’t require a DIY approach to maintenance and repair. The first-generation MakerBot Replicator felt too much like a prototype, as opposed to a proven, refined piece of hardware.

I look forward to the day when 3D printers are as cheap, ubiquitous, and easy to use as their 2D inkjet printer counterparts. But for now, every time I pass by MakerBot, abandoned in a corner of the office lounge, I feel a slight pang of guilt and regret. I’m sorry we couldn’t make it work, MakerBot, but I’ll always remember the great times we shared.***


* Our MakerBot’s name is Rob Roboto, and since gender-normative naming is de rigueur for 3D printers, I have concluded he is male.

** FYI, in Boston, we use the word wicked as an adverb—in place of very or really—to indicate emphasis.

***Since I originally published this piece on Medium, MakerBot support has reached out to me and has suggested we try using the Replicator 2 Drive Block Hardware Kit in place of the Delrin-based extruder apparatus. They have been kind enough to offer to send us a couple free kits, and I’m open to giving them a try.

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  • rich

    I’ve had my original Replicator for about a year now. Went through three delrin plungers before I came across a retro-fit design on Thingiverse that uses a spring-loaded ball bearing instead of a friction plunger. Haven’t had a single jam since modding. The machine was painfully slow when I got it, but Makerbot has since issued firmware updates that have improved the operation of the stepper motors phenomenally. A year ago, if I tried to print faster than 30 or 40 mm/s the machine would vibrate so much the drive belts would skip teeth. With the latest firmware, I can print at 120 mm/s with minimal chatter. It’s like a whole new machine. Here are some tips I have found indispensable: Enclose the build space. Air currents are your enemy. Vent the top cover (mine is a cardboard box), to prevent excess heat in the feeder tubes, which can lead to feed failure. Make a “glue” by dissolving a few scrap pieces of ABS in acetone. Wipe down the platform with a small amount before printing. Print at 220C. Hotter temps are not needed, and create more fumes. If the cold side of the extruder gets too hot the incoming filament will slip against the drive gear. Platform only needs to be at 105C (mine takes forever to get to 110; 105 works fine). Output your object to a file, put it on an SD card and print from that. Couple extra steps, but it removes the dependency on a computer and many possible points of failure. Plus it frees up that computer to do other stuff while the printer prints. Makerbot and other consumer 3D printers are definitely not at the plug-and-play stage yet, requiring lots of fiddling with software, hardware and myriad factors that can make or break a print. If you’re not the type who likes to tinker, I can see how this could be daunting. I had to wade through endless forum posts and print quite a few “bird nests” before I got to where I can print reliably. I’ve thought about ditching the whole thing on several occasions, but I’m glad I stuck with it.

    • Sanders Kleinfeld

      Thanks for the great tips rich. MakerBot Support staff also suggested replacing the Delrin plunger with the spring-loaded design, so we’re going to give that a try in the O’Reilly office, and we will try some of your other suggestions as well.

      I do hope in the future that we can get closer to a “plug-and-play” state with 3D printers, though, because all the fiddling makes it quite a time consuming hobby.

      • 零 影月

        Define “plug-and-play”. Normal printers require servicing as well – and honestly have you ever had an inkjet printer you could service yourself AND worked for 2 years straight?

        • Sanders Kleinfeld

          I’ve had inkjet printers for 2+ years and not needed to service them at all, beyond putting in new ink cartridges, which was fairly trivial to do myself. I consider that to be “plug-and-play”. And, since you can now get a basic inkjet for $50-$75 USD, replacing a broken printer is not cost-prohibitive.

          By contrast, our office Replicator began breaking down after around 3 months of use, now regularly requires time-consuming tune-up and maintenance, and would cost ~$2,000 USD to replace.

          If we could get to the point where 3D printers are as reliable and low-cost as today’s inkjet printers, I’d be elated.

      • MakerBot Help Team

        Hi guys – Thanks for your
        posts and passion about 3D Printing.

        Rich – Thank you for offering your insight
        and expertise as well.

        Sanders – we have many MakerBot Replicator owners that
        love their printers and print continually on them. In fact we use original
        MakerBot Replicators in our “Bot Farm” and throughout our office. As with any 3D
        printer, they do require some TLC and regular maintenance. We offer a dedicated
        support staff to help MakerBot owners print successfully on a regular basis,
        and also have loads of video tutorials on makerbot.com about how to properly
        maintain our 3D printers. As Rich mentioned, the most recent release of
        MakerWare supports the Replicator and helps with some typical printing issues.
        Updating your MakerWare and firmware are paramount to successful printing
        experiences. If you are in the NYC area our store offers weekly classes
        demonstrating the best ways to keep the Replicator running optimally with great
        results. We also go beyond the regular maintenance discussions by regularly
        inviting business owners, inventors and entrepreneurs – even a magician who
        made his own props on a MakerBot Replicator – to give talks on how they use the
        technology in their jobs and everyday lives. Let us know if you’d like to come
        down to the MakerBot store for one of our classes or to simply have a look
        around. We love showing the technology to people like you, who have experience
        with 3D printing, as well as to people who have heard about the technology, but
        haven’t experienced it yet. Please let us know how everything goes with your
        new extruder upgrade and if we can offer anymore assistance on the original
        Replicator you have in the office. Don’t ever hesitate to contact us at support@makerbot.com. Thanks!

  • 零 影月

    We just got our Replicator 2X about a month ago and it’s been serving us fine. I think a lot of your gripes have been resolved; but some of them like part replacement will always exist in hardware. Even normal printers will break and require servicing – at least in the case of the replicator you can buy replacement parts directly. Also, if the Delrin plunger was out of stock for so long why didn’t you contact them or maybe try to find an alternative source? Google is giving me suppliers on the first page that have compatible looking plungers…

    • Sanders Kleinfeld

      Glad to hear that the Replicator 2 is working well for you, and you are not experiencing any of these issues!

      Regarding the first-generation Replicator, I did originally contact MakerBot via Twitter earlier this year to try to find out where I could get a replacement Delrin, but did not get a response from them at that time—although much to their credit, after I posted this article, they reached out to me and offered some replacement drive block kits, which was much appreciated.

      As I mentioned in the article, I did try printing a compatible plunger I found on Thingiverse to replace the worn-out Delrin, but it did not work. After that experience, I was not willing to spend additional money and time trying out other plungers that were “compatible-looking” but that were not expressly designed for the purpose of being used in a MakerBot extruder.

  • Misha

    I’ve got a Thing-O-Matic and it feels like an alpha build. The machine has a failure rate of 75%

  • iXce

    Just wondering, why didn’t you try another printer ? Like, not MakerBot ? They are quite well known in the amateur 3D printer community for selling sub-par (like, much slower at constant quality than other, more open printers) items at very high prices, quickly discontinuing the sales of replacement parts once the new generation is up and such.

    • Sanders Kleinfeld

      @iXce, the main issue was cost. We don’t really have a budget of $1,000-$2,000 to buy another printer (I know there are some cheaper models out there, but even another $300 would be a lot). Also, I was genuinely a bit burnt out by my experience with the Replicator and fine with taking a break from the world of 3D printing for a while.

  • aughra

    lol. “Im through with this garbage, its not ready for ordinary consumers”

    mfg: “heres some free stuff because of your blog post”

    “ooooh, shiny”

    • Sanders Kleinfeld

      @6afaeb5c7fa581754b78da75c69f6873:disqus, haha, that’s somewhat fair, I guess. But mfg has really just offered some replacement parts for an out-of-stock piece, and it would seem rather churlish and dismissive not to at least give them one last try.

  • David Boyd

    I think this has as much to do with our consumer culture versus making culture. I built my first 3d printer just over 9 months ago. I paid a around $600 for the whole kit. While yes I spent a lot of time getting it to work right, I now understand how it works and why. I just last week taught a class that was a mix of adults and high school students where each student for $650 received and built a 3d printer (Prusa I3 model) from a kit. One adult who was a teacher had a MakerBot in her classroom and commented on the failure rate. But at the end of the class she said she now understood how and why the failures were happening.

    I liken the current state of consumer 3d printers to the early days of personnel computers (anyone remember HeathKit?). You could pay a small fortune for an IBM or other commercial machine or you could build one yourself for far less. Now I hardly know a high school student who hasn’t put together his own desktop from parts. At the same time they also probably have the latest Mac laptop or Netbook as well. Remember how hard DOS was? Or early Windows?

    BTW, I have printed parts for a robot, usable wrenches, and even a robotic hand. 3D printers can produce far more than cute figurines.

    • David Boyd

      Small correction, the class was $750.

  • peter

    You don’t look old enough to remember the early days of office laser printers. I do remember: They were very cool, but my god were they fussy. Now, years later, we hardly give them a thought. Low cost 3d printers are, what, five or six years old? And you had one of the early models at that. The problems you had are part of the ‘wild’ in ‘wild west of 3d printing’. It seems to me that 3d printers are improving faster than I remember laser printers improving (but that might just be faulty memory on my part). Nevertheless, I think five years from now 3d printers will be much better, faster, cheaper, and therefore more common.

    I understand your sadness when you now look at the Makerbot sitting in the corner. I’ve got some old abandoned equipment in the basement that was nifty at the time and a bear to work with. There was a certain joy at the time in getting it to work. But modern incarnations are much better and require no effort, so the old stuff sits there waiting to be scrapped.