Behind the Scenes: MakerBot Shows the Making of the Smart Extruder+

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MB headerBy the time you are into the actual process of 3D printing, all that’s usually on your mind is the outcome. With the green light on, all systems go, you see those first few layers being laid down perfectly. Walking away, you are thinking about how long your print will take, what it’s going to look like, how to finish it, and which file you want to print next so that you can wow the world with another fabulous innovation (or, okay, maybe just another pink smartphone case at the request of your mom). During that process—unless something went terribly wrong—how much time did you spend thinking about what’s inside the printer, or its extruder? Probably little, to none at all.

This surely isn’t the case over at MakerBot. And to be exact, they’ve spent over 160,000 hours testing (and thinking about) their new Smart Extruder+, introduced back in January following some major issues with the first Smart Extruder.

Those print hours are very impressive if you consider that in real world time they would add up to 18 years, cumulatively—and yes, you could raise a child and be waving goodbye to him upon his first memorable day at college in that time. That’s the beginning of a lifetime worth of printing—and the end result is a virtually new product that MakerBot created not after looking at the Smart Extruder+ predecessor but after going back to the beginning, to fundamentals, and using all the experience they’ve gained along with 25 years of innovative wisdom from parent company, Stratasys.

It’s often those most simple, solid thoughts that lead to big breakthroughs with a new product, and indeed that was the case as CEO Jonathan Jaglom realized what was really happening at the desktop today. Much like the trend observed in industrial 3D printing as the technology had just come into inception, users were mastering one skill level after another with their machines and then asking for more capabilities. Today, while there is an enormous maker community demonstrating that they can use the open-source concept to its fullest potential in creating new features—and entirely new hardware—for themselves, most of the world is still turning to the manufacturers.

“As adoption gains momentum, designers and engineers are coming back to us and asking for more,” Jaglom states.

In answer, MakerBot is coming back with their ‘most tested product’ ever, made possible as they worked closely with–and benefited from the experience of–their parent company.

“Whereas desktop 3D printing is a young industry, we are poised to evolve in leaps and bounds without reflecting this youth,” states the team. “And here’s what makes this possible: our homegrown innovation and our collaboration with Stratasys, a leader in industrial 3D printing.”

Extruder diagramMakerBot’s extruder already had a smart design, so in creating the new one, that was their core foundation. Smart sensors streamline the process, allowing for savings of time—always important in 3D printing—as well as keeping you from losing a print. Each sensor will provide feedback, in real time, to your printer, MakerBot Desktop, and MakerBot Mobile. And when you need to snap on a new extruder, pogo pins and strong magnets make replacement a fast and simple process.

The major points of refinement that users will see in this new extruder are:

  • Drastically reduced filament jams
  • Reduced clogging
  • Better connectivity

Through extending the PTFE tube, which runs from the hot end to the drive gears, MakerBot promises users will see both a reduction in clogging as well as underextrustion.

“At the end of a print, between layers, and between different details, the extruder retracts filament. After retractions, filament will sometimes cool and harden,” states the MakerBot team on their recent blog. “Because PTFE is a non-stick surface, molten filament doesn’t stick to it and build up. Buildups can result in clogs and underextrusion. Instead, filament slides off the tube and comes out of the nozzle.”

Untitled

The new PTFE tube

The new tube now runs along the entire path which your filament travels along, and the melted filament is relegated to one specific area. This eliminates clogs due to a straight path, not allowing for filament to accumulate.

Stronger magnets and longer pogo pins are meant to offer better connectivity—along with gold plating.

“A stronger connection between the Smart Extruder+ and the gantry of the 3D printer minimizes the effect of vibrations during the 3D printing process,” states MakerBot. “More vibrations can affect the accuracy of your print and rapidly wear down the pogo pins on the extruder, decreasing its life.”

Even more important goals extending beyond that were increased reliability, greater print success, and a longer-lasting product—and to achieve all of that, the Smart Extruder+ was part of a detailed and dedicated design process—culminating in a ‘rigorous large-scale reliability demonstration test.’

eight - compare pogo pins

Comparison of pogo pins

So back to those eighteen years. How was all this testing completed before everyone hit retirement age? According to MakerBot, it was a very intense process and required coordination between teams at both the Brooklyn factory and Stratasys headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

Extruders were built out on different days and by different line operators, according to MakerBot, as they wanted to make sure that not only was the hardware working in a superior manner, but that the assembly process was perfected and predictable across the board. Examining every function of every extruder was the last step before any extruders left the factory floor—completed by automated functional testers on the production line. This ‘end of the line tester’ was created in partnership with Stratasys as a quality assurance system that is responsible for performing both basic and advanced testing on the extruder build and electronics.

The MakerBot team explains that they have ‘a huge array of metrics’ regarding extruders at their disposal, allowing for pinpointing issues, as well as the most subtle weaknesses. This allows them to deal with any problems before the products leave the factory line.

“The Smart Extruder+ underwent the most rigorous testing program that MakerBot has ever performed. Every aspect of the SE+’s development and testing program was thought out to ensure the most consistent and reliable product possible” says Jack Kinney, senior test engineer at MakerBot.

One - 8 EOL Tester

The Smart Extruder+ was subjected to intensive examination and testing on the factory floor.

A total of 5,800 total prints were completed, with each one lasting over 24 hours. Each new extruder is backed with a six-month warranty, as long as only PLA filament is used.

Retailing at $199, or an impressive $99 when purchased with a MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation 3D printer, the extruder is sold separately. Find out more about this new product and its exact technical specifications here. Discuss these extensive testing processes in the MakerBot Smart Extruder+ forum over at 3DPB.com.

[All photos supplied to 3DPrint.com courtesy of MakerBot.]
three - SLS Molding

Early SLS Molding of the SE+ Housing from Stratasys Direct Manufacturing

SSYS Testing

SSYS Testing

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