UPDATE: 12/10/14 3:48PM ET: MakerBot has responded to us about these reports. Jenifer Howard, Director of PR for the company, had this to say: “We have been continually iterating and improving on both our hardware and software. The Smart Extruder you reference is already in the market. We’ve had major software and firmware updates recently, including this week, that have improved the print quality and reliability of the Smart Extruder. The number one thing customers can do to have a better printing experience is update firmware and software.”
The company told us that they are constantly working to improve on the Smart Extruder. The extruders come with warranties and they can be exchanged out if they do not work properly. This is where the hardware innovation comes into play. While the company isn’t releasing a new Smart Extruder as a separate product, they continue to innovate and improve upon the current design, and new 5th Generation Replicators come stocked with the latest versions at all times. The same is true when it comes to replacement extruders for those which do not function correctly.
MakerBot is currently the most well known manufacturer of consumer-level desktop 3D printers. It’s almost to a point where you hear people talking about “buying a MakerBot”, rather than “buying a 3D printer”. The company is a marketing juggernaut, knowing exactly how to grab the attention of their potential customers. Much of their marketing genius can be attributed to former CEO and co-founder Bre Pettis, who many say really looked up to former Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Pettis no longer is in charge at MakerBot, as he stepped aside to take on a bigger role with parent company Stratasys earlier this year.
If you recall, we broke news of Pettis’ departure from MakerBot back in September, on reports we received from an anonymous tipster. While we are always skeptical when receiving information from any anonymous party, we always do our due diligence to ensure that the information we receive is coming from a legitimate source.
Recently, we have been made aware by an employee of MakerBot, who wishes to remain anonymous, of some interesting things that have been going on internally at the company. This is surrounding their recently released Smart Extruder. The Smart Extruder was introduced by MakerBot at CES 2014 and comes standard on all new 5th Generation MakerBot Replicators. Since the release, there has been quite a bit of disappointment on behalf of consumers. (Note: This information is based on our anonymous source and none of it has been confirmed by MakerBot themselves)
According to the employee that we have had contact with, MakerBot actually knew of many of the issues that the Smart Extruder had prior to the release of the product. In fact, according to this source, whom we have confirmed works for MakerBot, the company held a special meeting on April 13, 2014 in order to try and come up with solutions to the multiple issues that the Smart Extruder had.
“This meeting took place Sunday 4/13/14 and was an attempt to understand the problems plaguing the project,” explained our source. “But the bottom line is that [the] product shipped in spite of the known hardware problems. It makes me sick to know we did this to customers. Even I could not get [the extruders] to work. Another great example of corporate greed winning out over great products.”
While this employee was NOT at the meeting, he told us that the Smart Extruder was code named “Squid” and that he walked into the room that the meeting took place in after it was complete. In that room, he found a diagram left up on the whiteboard, depicting all of the issues that the Smart Extruder had. Apparently the diagram remained on this whiteboard for “days after” the meeting took place.
The meeting included many big names at MakerBot, such as their Program Manager, VP of Operations, Director of Quality, a Sr. Mechanical Engineer, and a Mechanical Engineer. (We will leave the names of these particular individuals out of this article).
While all this definitely is not something you want to see from a large company, it is worth noting that this story does take a turn for the better. Whether it has anything to do with a change of leadership within the company, or simply that they were too far along in the production process, previously, to halt production and cancel shipments, we do not know.
According to yet another source who will also remain anonymous, a new version of the Smart Extruder is on its way:
“A brand new, completely re-engineered Smart Extruder will eliminate clogs, homing errors, underextrusion, and other problems associated with the current version. Designed as a drop-in replacement, it will be included on all new 5th generation printers going forward, offered as a replacement for current smart extruders under warranty, and as a trade-in for customers without MakerCare. It will be announced as part of the campaign to let customers know we’re listening to their feedback, continually iterating and improving on our hardware, and are going to do better. Details are subject to change until the announcement.”
This is great news for those consumers who have been struggling to get their 5th Generation Replicators working due to Smart Extruder problems. It is worth noting that MakerBot has publicly been taking feedback, and providing the best support they can on the current Smart Extruder model. Back in September, the company admitted that they “haven’t been responding to issues fast enough,” and made it a point to start doing a better job.
“When the Replicators first shipped, the return rate was around 80%,” explained our source. “It has lowered since but has been a constant problem. The old extruder design simply doesn’t work with materials like ninjaflex and many other materials that MakerBot is developing in R&D, so they can’t be brought to market until the extruder can handle them. The new extruder has been in development since before the 5th Generation Replicator shipped. It has different thermal and mechanical characteristics that will not result in as many errors as the old design.”
If this report is correct, it is great to see MakerBot come through with a modified version of the Smart Extruder, one that will bring the 5th Generation Replicators up to par with the way they were originally intended to function. It may also bring with it a plethora of new 3D printing material options from MakerBot.
Hopefully MakerBot can learn from their mistakes and in the future make sure that products are working fully before they release them publicly. What do you think about this latest rumor? Will you be encouraged to see a new modified replacement for the MakerBot Smart Extruder released? Discuss in the MakerBot Smart Extruder forum thread on 3DPB.com. Below you will find more photos of different sections of the whiteboard diagram.