The MakerBot Replicator is one of the best consumer 3-D printers on the market, but because this technology is still in its infancy, there are several challenges to overcome. At $1,999, it’s more expensive than other consumer 3-D printers, such as the Solidoodle 2, which costs around $500. Part of the cost is due to the Replicator’s dual print heads, which release plastic filament material for two-color prints. While it’s not possible to print with both heads simultaneously, having dual heads allows you to mix colors together to an extent. For example, mixing yellow and blue filament to make a green object is not possible, but some subtle blending where colors meet is achievable with practice.
As with all 3-D printers, getting good results from the Replicator takes experimentation and practice. While your first few attempts may come out as desired, as you grow increasingly ambitious, you’ll find that creating 3-D objects becomes quite a challenge. Many objects simply aren’t possible to print, and since they often take several hours to complete, learning how to make successful prints is extremely time-consuming. However, the software used by the Replicator is capable of creating quite intricate models, and it automatically builds a support structure around objects as it prints them. For example, an object with a complex piece on top may need a support structure to keep from toppling over while printing. After the object is printed and the plastic has cooled, you can simply break off the support structure.
A few issues related specifically to the Replicator have to do with its design. It’s made from plywood, and it has a limited access window for performing maintenance on the extrusion heads and printing platform. The platform is covered in Kapton tape, and the replacement tape that comes with the Replicator is difficult to apply due to its 125mm thickness. It’s much easier to apply several strips from a thinner roll of Kapton, such as the 25mm roll that comes with the MakerGear Mosaic. Kapton tape prevents the hot plastic from sticking to the platform.
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Another issue specifically related to the Replicator is the tendency for the second print head to leave a residue on the printed object as it returns to its resting position. The cause of this problem is that both print heads are installed at the same height above the printing platform, and there is no way to adjust them. It just takes some experimentation to figure out how to successfully print objects within these constraints.
The Replicator uses open-source software, and at the moment, the installation process is somewhat daunting, though worth the trouble. You have to use a program called ReplicatorG to actually print 3-D models from computer files, and you need a program called Skeinforge to send the print jobs to the Replicator. In order for these programs to communicate with each other, you need to install the Python interpreter on your computer. The Replicator website describes exactly how to download and install all of these free, open-source packages, although learning to use them takes many hours of practice.
On the side of the Replicator’s case, an LCD panel allows you to print directly from an SD card without connecting the printer to a computer. However, you still need a computer to copy files to the card, and the Replicator includes a few example files for testing your new printer.
The biggest challenge with 3-D printing is the time it takes to print an object. The Replicator has one of the biggest print volumes of any consumer 3-D printer, but using the whole space can result in an object that takes 10 hours to print and could very easily break apart before finishing. If you can get through the initial learning period and live with the fact that you can’t pause a print for an extended length of time, the Replicator is an excellent 3-D printer.