A printer for the prosumer and professional prototyper alike, the MakerBot Replicator Z18 is a versatile, large scale 3D solution that will swing with the punches and produce quality prints day in, day out.
|Printing Area||300 mm x 305 mm x 457|
|Layer Resolution||100 microns|
|Extruders Diameter||0.4 mm|
With the Replicator Z18, MakerBot strives for professional grade quality and build volume while keeping a desktop form factor, and on the surface, this 3D printer does just that doing away with the cumbrous size of standalone pro models that cost significantly more. Think large scale industrial prototypes not produced by the industrial-like mega printers that inhabit the dark recesses of workshops across the world.
Does it stand up to these grandiose aspirations and what exactly does the MakerBot Replicator Z18 sport under the hood? Here’s our take on the Replicator Z18.
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Design and Features
From the onset, the Replicator Z18 emits an air of refined construction with stunning sheer right angles that define it’s all black powder-coated casing and towering cabinet allure. Acrylic panels provide front and side windows onto the build area, while the back panel is filled in.
The front window swivels open with a simple press of the locking mechanism to access the build plate, and once shut provides a fully enclosed heated chamber that regulates the ambient temperature to ward off warping caused by thermal fluctuations.
As for the construction, the frame and mechanical parts are made of powder-coated steel with PC-ABS and aluminum composite material weighing in at a total of 90lbs. In keeping with the Cartesian FDM design, the Replicator utilizes the common Z18 1.8° step angle with 1/16 micro-stepping motor configuration printing at a set layer resolution of 100 microns with a standard 0.4 mm nozzle. Nothing fancy here, but well within the realm of acceptability.
The build area measures in at a massive 300 mm x 305 mm x 457 mm with an emphasis on verticality, but truth be told all three axes are covered with over 2500 cubic inches of build space and ample room to print even the most ambitiously sized prototypes and parts. The build plate itself is formed of injection molded PC-ABS and sits atop the plate support bracket via a set of clips for easy removal once a print is finished.
The Replicator Z18 on sale today is a little different to the original model launched back 2014 alongside the much-maligned fifth generation of Replicator 3D printers. The most significant upgrade is swapping out the notoriously error-prone extruder for the significantly improved MakerBot Smart Extruder +. The modular design means you can swap it out for a replacement with ease and an inbuilt feature detects filament levels and ferries progress information across to the software for monitoring.
As far as filament support, the Replicator Z18 is limited to 1.75 mm diameter PLA. Although MakerBot recommends its own proprietary PLA in large 2 lbs spools and says the Z18 is optimized for it, the printer can accommodate third-party filament without any problems.
MakerBot flogs its filament as durable, resistant to impacts and subject to over 160,000 hours of testing or so goes the marketing spiel, but we found it to be overpriced for little improvement on standard fare PLA and it performed worse than lower-priced alternatives.
In other features, the Replicator Z18 includes a 320 X 240 resolution onboard camera that takes reference pictures every few seconds for monitoring through the MakerBot app and to share on Makerbot Thingiverse and social media if you are that way inclined. It also has a bellow that guides with the extruder to prevent heat from escaping, a nozzle brush, and filament collection waste bin.
The Replicator has a 3.5 inch full-color LCD with a turn dial to navigate the menus allowing you to peruse your library of models, calibrate the printer, lower the build plate, load filament, monitor chamber/print head temperature, preheat the printer, swap out the extruder, update the firmware and so on. We found it has a degree of depth without being overly complicated and remaining intuitive to use. It works as an excellent hands-on addition to software.
Speaking of software, you can connect to the Replicator Z18 via WiFi, USB-to-PC, and Ethernet using MakerBot’s slicing desktop software and mobile app, MakerBot Print and MakerBot Mobile respectively. The software supports STL, OBJ, THING, MakerBot file types. Both applications are compatible with Windows 7/10, Linux, and Mac OS X and benefit from regular updates to improve functionality and performance. It links up with Thingiverse offering a sizeable archive of models to print.
Cloud-based MakerBot Print does the majority of the work behind the scenes with tinkering options for the user to mess around with from print mode, to scaling, adding supports, rafts, and creating print profiles. It won’t wow enthusiasts, but is more than able to process and send files for printing without issues. The mobile app is very much a skeleton version of the desktop software and allows you to monitor prints, receive notifications, pause and cancel prints on the go.
The MakerBot Replicator Z18 ships in a package mounted on a wooden crate befitting its large size. The protective packaging matches the price tag, and MakerBot has gone to length to protect the printer. The small touches like a piece of foam preventing the door from smashing open and closed are a welcome touch. The biggest issue was getting it off the crate and onto a table, which turned out to be a three-person job due to the large profile and weight of the Replicator Z18.
The package includes the printer itself, a quick start unpacking guide, PLA filament spool, Smart Extruder +, build plate tape, power cord, USB cable, and 5 mm hex wrench.
There’s a 16 step installation process before you can start using the printer, which should take no more than 15 minutes. It involves removing the protective tape, clips, and film first, then adjusting the rubberized feet to the surface. Next comes fitting the extruder (very straightforward – just push it into the carriage and magnets secure it), loading the filament spool into the holding bay that sits on the bottom of the printer below the LCD, feeding filament into the tubing, applying tape to the build plate, plugging in the power cord, and following the onscreen instructions.
Once powered up, we had to feed the filament from the tubing into the extruder which involved heating the extruder, feeding the end until it latched onto the gears, then fitting the feeder tube over the top of the extruder. It couldn’t be simpler, and the LCD provides detailed information throughout the process.
The Z18 comes pre-leveled although the assisted build plate feature is easy to use and guides the user through each step of the process instructing the user to tighten screws based on blinking LEDs. Plugging in the USB cable and firing up MakerBot Print also triggered a firmware update, which is a good sign of ongoing support.
At first, the print quality of the Replicator Z18 was nothing short of disappointing with successive botched prints. Eager to get the most out of the printer, we contacted MakerBot support who walked us through leveling the bed assisted by the LCD instructions. A few twists of screws later and we were back in business. It had dislodged in transit.
From here onward, the print quality was nothing short of spectacular. Regardless of the size of the print, the Z18 produced blemish-free, smooth prints with details worthy of its marketing as a professional grade printer. The Smart Extruder + makes all the difference and gone are the days of joyless troubleshooting that defined earlier models of the Z18.
The quality of the prints mean they can contend with the highly accurate demands of an engineering context where parts, models, and prototypes are used in situ to run stress tests before full-blown manufacturing commences.
Where the Z18 loses points is when we consider its speed: it’s a slow printer, and although faster than previous iterations, it still lags behind similarly priced printers. Equally, it takes a while to warm up and get printing. We understand that upcoming firmware updates will attempt to increase the speed, so MakerBot is aware of the issue and is working towards a solution.
From our experience, the support from MakerBot is of the highest caliber and the folks we spoke to were not only friendly and knowledgeable but eager to help us get the most out of the Replicator Z18.
MakerBot offers an extensive library of troubleshooting guides, educational articles, phone/live chat/email contacts, part replacement service, and up to three years of warranty coverage if you opt for the MakerCare Platinum package (plus priority response, wear and tear coverage, etc.). The standard warranty is a respectable one-year.
MakerBot lives up to its ambitions of providing a desktop-friendly professional grade printer with a massive build volume and overall ease of use. It’s miles away from the first versions of the Z18 plagued with numerous issues and the fruit of MakerBot listening to builders to finally ship the printer it was supposed to be when it first launched.
The print quality is of the highest tier and should suit most professional environments down to a tee; however, we see the Z18 as the perfect prosumer 3D printer for hobbyists that have the budget and drive to create sizeable, complicated prints on a reliable, stylish, and well-designed printer.
The slow speed, cumbersome profile and software limitations don’t weigh in enough to sway us away from recommending the MakerBot Replicator Z18.