Owned by Stratasys, MakerBot was an early entry in the hobbyist 3D printer market. It was founded in 2009, and its first printer was the Cupcake CNC. The company now boasts that it has the largest install base of 3D printers in the world and runs the largest 3D design community in the world. Its Replicator Z18 system crosses over from hobbyist into the professional realm with a high-quality fused deposition modeling (FDM) printer.
Small, inexpensive and up to date, the MakerBot Replicator Z18 is a prototyping and production system that bridges the gap between consumer and industrial 3D printers. At $6,500, it is not only one of the best values in the 3D printer market but is a great pick because of the wide array of items it can make.
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The MakerBot Replicator Z18 can precisely create small and midsize models out of polylactic acid (PLA), but not acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) nor metals, such as steel, bronze, and titanium. MakerBot's Tough PLA, though, is formulated to be just as strong as ABS and with greater tensile strength. It can resist deformation better than PLA materials.
The printer builds up the model a layer at a time from softened PLA filament to correctly create critical overhangs, angled elements and compound curves without warping the material. However, it might not be appropriate for items that need to be used as functional parts or structural elements. Both an American auto-parts maker and a German robotics company use the Z18 to create prototypes for new products.
Able to build with 100- or 200-micron layers, the Z18 outdoes the much more expensive Stratasys Fortus 250mc's ability to create thin layers. It can lay down details with an accuracy of 11 microns for length and width and 2.5 microns in height.
The filament spools come in three sizes: 2 pounds, 5 pounds and 10 pounds. The palette blows the competition away with more than two dozen available filament colors, including two different grays, translucent red and neon orange in addition to the standard hues. There's even a glow-in-the-dark variant that might be popular around Halloween.
The Z18's waste can't be recycled, but you don't have to fuss with expensive filament cartridges that double the cost of the raw material. Many of the printer's filament spools go for $50 each, while some of the specialty ones cost more.
Its Smart Extruder Plus assembly is designed to resist clogging with super-slippery, Teflon-like PTFE coatings on key internal parts. Even if it does clog, the extruder can be snapped out and replaced with a new one in a matter of seconds, reducing downtime. Replacement extruders cost $200.
On the downside, the Z18's single-extruder design means that its supports are made from the same PLA material. When the project is finished, they need to be carefully removed before the item can be used.
Speed is of the essence for the Z18. Capable of laying down material at up to 150mm per second, it can buzz through items quickly. It tops out at items that are a maximum 18 x 12 x 11.8 inches. The Z18 is versatile enough to make items as diverse as prototype engine parts, models of fossils, action figures and artistic vases.
The Z18 is small and light enough for a desktop or shelf at 33.9 x 22.2 x 19.4 inches – one-third the size of the Fortus 250mc. It weighs just 90 pounds. MakerBot sells a matching base for it to sit on that raises the build chamber to eye level and provides storage for consumables. It has lockable casters and costs $1,250.
Ease of Use
It may not have a touchscreen, but the Z18's 3.5-inch color screen has two buttons and an innovative dial for controlling the printer's settings and operations. Each screen has six icons that represent settings, modes and utilities. Just spin the dial through potential choices and pick the one you want. As the item is created, the screen shows the system's progress.
MakerBot has done its homework for software. To use a desktop or notebook computer, you'll need to load the included MakerBot Print software; Version 3 is available for 64-bit versions of Windows 7 and 10 as well as OS X 10.9 or newer operating systems. MakerBot also has a mobile app for iOS and Android systems and the MakerBot Cloud site to prep the model for printing from within a web browser, which is a good way to integrate Linux computers into the 3D printing process.
Turning a design into a physical object starts with a variety of CAD files, including STL designs, and the software can directly print Thingiverse's library of 1.6 million design files. The MakerBot Print program not only corrects faults in the design and adds supports as needed, but digitally slices the structure into manufacturable layers. It can even arrange a bunch of small parts on the build stage to reduce costs and build time.
For when you're in a hurry, MakerBot Print's MinFill mode creates hollow structures to speed construction and cut costs for quickie models. It can speed up production by 30 percent.
The printer can run unattended, but, unlike older 3D printers, the Z18 has a built-in webcam for remotely monitoring the system's progress. Its video stream shows a 320 x 240-pixel view at a few frames per second of the construction chamber in MakerBot Print or the mobile apps.
You can set the Z18 up with a stand-alone workstation or on the company's network, with the choice of gigabit Ethernet or 802.11n Wi-Fi. It lacks the option of the newer and faster 802.11ac format, but it can connect to a system directly via USB cable. At any point, you can just plug a flash drive with the needed files into its USB port.
The system is light on maintenance, which translates into more uptime for printing. Other than keeping the extruder clean and emptying the waste filament bin when it fills up, you'll need to occasionally lubricate the printer's threaded vertical Z-axis rods.
While most of the industry has a one-year warranty, MakerBot stands by the Z18 with only six months of coverage. It costs $799, $1,549 or $2,199 to add one, two or three years.
The site has a slew of items to help you get started and make the most of the Z18, including a detailed manual and startup guide, training topics, and downloads of updated software. Rather than 24/7 support, MakerBot has technicians standing by from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday, so late-night problems will have to wait until the next morning. It promises next-day or better service on email questions.