In the first of a series of episodes of mini 3D printer reviews, Tom and Tracy Hazzard start off with the M3D printer. The M3D printer started as one of the most successful 3D printer Kickstarter campaigns, which raised between $3 million to $3.5 million. In its’ post reward production, the 3D printers were commercially sold for $350 each. Tom and Tracy share their insight and opinion on the M3D printer, numerating its features, uses, advantages, and disadvantages. Are you using a mini 3D printer? If so, what are your thoughts?
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Battle Of The Mini 3D Printers – M3D Printer Review
We are starting the battle of the minis.
This is the first in a series of what is going to be five printer reviews. It’s going to be one probably every other week until we get through five of them but when we were at CES, we saw that there were many mini printers and they were everywhere.
It took us a long time to get this organized. That’s how difficult that was. Do you know what was more the problem? A lot of this stuff shown at CES wasn’t ready for prime time and that was the real thing. It was incredibly difficult for us to organize and get all these printers in. They would be all in so that we could compare them next to each other and take a look at them that way. It was difficult to organize.
Even companies would say, “We’re shipping it to you. Here’s the date.” We’ll give you the tracking number as soon as we have it when it ships and then it didn’t ship. There was another that all of a sudden had some technical problems and then they stopped the shipping. I’ll review units until they work it out. Some of those still haven’t been resolved but we’ve got enough mini printers to do a good series. We’re going to focus on one at least every other week for a while and then we’ll have a recap and compare all of them afterward by the time that all gets done. We have spent a great deal of time with this M3D printer.
First off, I should say it’s a cute little printer.
Everybody knows we are designers. We design consumer retail products for the most part and as a design from the packaging to the actual product coming out of the box. I did shoot some unboxing videos and a couple of other things starting to print on it. It is a well-designed product from an industrial design perspective. It’s well done.
It comes in two colors, although they didn’t send us a cute color here for photography. It’s white, which is nice, clean and everything but they do have some cute colors too. It’s an attractive product and I had high expectations and high hopes for it.
I did, too. I was excited. Once I got into the box, it seemed simple. When we get a review unit, we want to make sure it’s in real retail packaging. We opened it up as if we’re a new consumer. We followed all the instructions. We don’t ignore them and think we know better and we’ll do it our way. We used it the way the products are intended. We will deviate, go from there, try to push the limits of it and see what we think of it. M3D was originally a Kickstarter. It was the most successful 3D print Kickstarter at the time. I don’t know if it still is and there have been a couple of new projects. They’ve been successful, but this one is over $2.5 million or $3 million, something like that. They did well and for what is retail about $350 printer, that’s a lot of printers. Let’s talk about what I like about the printer and what’s good about the printer. We talked about the design and the packaging and that’s well done.
We have the preconceived expectations that while they might be scaled down in size and they might not be overly featured, they might have simple slicing software that are part of their system already or things like that, that they were fully capable. At least that’s our set out from having gone to CES and seen all these different printers firsthand.
That’s most people’s idea of the mini printer and it’s most manufacturers’ intention with a mini printer. They’re making something with a smaller build volume that’s for an entry-level customer. I don’t think they intend that it can make anything less than a bigger size printer could do.
Back to my sewing machine example. When I was a kid, I got my entry-level sewing machine and then it does something called a chain stitch. It has no bobbin underneath it, which is a lot easier to maintain. A sewing machine has a thread on top and a thread on the bottom that creates this stitch that gets tied together. This is a chain stitch so it creates that stitch with only the upper level and the machine does all of the other work for you. It’s an easier way to do it and not have to thread it and stuff when you’re young. It’s a typical entry-level sewing machine that is given to young kids who might learn to sew. It might happen in a Home Ec class in 5th or 6th grade and they might get something like that too. When I look at this and I go, “There are a whole bunch of problems with chain stitching that they come apart and they don’t hold as well.” You quickly outgrow that. My hope here was that with the mini printers, you wouldn’t that quickly outgrow it. You might desire something bigger but you wouldn’t outgrow it from a functionality standpoint.
That’s my hope as well. Continue with what I’m pleased and impressed with about the printer, then we’re going to get into our experience printing it, is loading the filament. This printer has a cool way that they have the filament located right below the build plate and the build plate snaps out easily and has a surface that it was referred to as build tech by someone to communicate with their company. I don’t know if it’s build tech or just their version of it, but it’s got a surface on the build plate that you don’t need to put blue tape on and it lasts a long time. It definitely has a texture to it and it’s made to receive PLA or the materials that you can print on it well.
When you open that up, they’ve got this thing done. You feed the filament from down in that compartment up and you tell the software to load the film in and it grabs it and pulls it in. You coil up the filament around that spool and drop it right under there. It’s a small spool and then you cover it up with the build plate and that loading the filament process was easy. I like it that especially for a mini printer, maybe having a student or youth, one of my kids learn to use it, that was nice that there’s not this spool of filament hanging on the outside of this thing to get tangled up for kids to play with. It was neat and clean and then it feeds it through a tube around the back of the printer up to the printhead.
You also don’t have to use it. If you build a rack for filament above your printer and feed it down, alternatively, you can just feed the filament directly into the printhead not going underneath in that area. That was some nice feature. It was well designed and well done. The printer doesn’t seem to mind in terms of calibration, removing that build plate and putting it back. That all works well. We give unbiased opinions here about everything and from this point forward after loading the film, it was a struggle and a bit of a disappointment using this printer. I’ve read some other reviews out there about this printer that have been favorable, but I had a tough time right from the get-go hooking it up to a Macintosh computer. It didn’t respond. It couldn’t connect to it for anything.
I got in touch with their customer service, which was responsive and said, “What’s going on?” They had me troubleshoot and do a bunch of things. Eventually, they sent me a debugging script that they wrote and wanted me to bring up a terminal window in the Mac console already getting beyond normal Mac user capability here. It was like running an old DOS program for them to try to troubleshoot what’s going on with it and I accommodated them. I was happy to do it because I wanted to get it going with a Mac. I sent that script back to them. They had me try a few things that never worked and then they got the information from me on the script.
We’re talking weeks and weeks. This is not like, “I just did this yesterday and I haven’t gotten a response.” I sent them the information so they can troubleshoot and still weeks later, I have not gotten a solution or answers back so that’s a little frustrating. I understand it does work with some Mac and some operating systems but the latest operating system and it’s a new Mac. We’re using a MacBook. It didn’t work so we had to shift into Windows mode. We have an old PC. I have one of each. I have a Windows PC so I connected to the Windows PC right up and there’s no problem. I could use our software and proceed to print. Here’s again where we have a lot of problems. I spent a lot of time with this printer.
It had a funny sound. It was quiet. We would have this like, “Is that thing even on?” We had a humming sound and then right before something would go wrong, it sounded like it got shocked. There was like a zap of electricity. Do you know when you touch those balls with all the electricity, like a static ball and have this static shock sound?
It sounded to me like an insect buzzing loudly and what it ended up being. Here it became a problem with a lot of stuff. We have many different test objects we try to print on these things. Some of them are simple and we didn’t even try for the most complex one. The most complex thing we tried to print on this was our coffee sleeve, which we’ve been running this promotion. It’s out for anybody to get and download, but it’s a known product and prints well on many printers. The coffee sleeve and then anything else we printed would dislodge from the build plate in the middle of the print.
The extruder would go over it, hit it and kick it off. I was like, “Why does that happen? It doesn’t make any sense.” I was always recommended to print with a raft on these things. Here’s what we discovered. When we print with a raft, their own slicing software, which is the only way you can use this printer, you have to use their slicing software. I even researched because I wanted to use Simplify3D with it. Looking at their forums, the M3D company does not provide the ports that they use to communicate through USB. They’ve kept that secret therefore, you cannot print directly to this printer through Cura, Simplify3D or any other software.
There’s one little caveat to that, but you can’t print directly from any other software. I found that you have to use their software and at first it seems simple, just like other closed systems software. A few good selections for resolution, how thick are the layers and all that. Are you going to use a raft? Are you going to use support or you’re not? It’s basic stuff. I tried to follow the user software and printed it. When you print with a raft, I found that at least with the current version of the software, it’s putting down too much material on the raft. I had tried an early version of the software too, but it didn’t get any better.
It was ending up with a lot of globs between the raft stage and then printing the part stage. Those globs were sitting up higher than the layer that you’re trying to print next and it shouldn’t be there. This buzzing sound was the cooling fan that was hitting this glob. Imagine the propellers of a fan blade hitting this thing and buzzing, that’s what the sound was. It was the same globs that caused many times the extruder to hit the raft or hit the part in some way with a glob. It would dislodge it from its position on the build plate which meant the rest of the print was useless. I took some photos of this and I’ll show them to you. It’s a stringing mess.
Do you think that part of the problem is that the build tech material that the build plate is made out doesn’t adhere quite as well as they think it does? Do you think it’s more of a fundamental problem with the way that the printer was printing?
I’ve tested a lot of things. I’ve come to the conclusion that the raft slicing portion of their software is flawed in my opinion. I don’t make that claim lightly. I have tried ad nauseam to get things to print. What did I try doing next? I tried getting rid of the raft. I was like, “Let me see if I can print directly to the surface without a raft.” Some objects that are big enough that don’t have small points of contact on the build plate, you could do that with. Trading the fact that I’d like to print some things that have smaller points of contact and don’t want to be limited to not be able to use a raft, I decided, “Let me print.” I printed a big neural nut that I created for our microphone stands for the podcast. It’s the special mounts that go through a drilled hole in the desk and then support the end of our boom mount and you have a nut on the bottom. I 3D printed both of those a long time ago. Tracy’s busted and I had to print a new one.
I did that but not on the M3D because it wouldn’t work, but I had to print it in 100% infill to strengthen it. Now we’re doing okay again. Printing that nut, you’ll see some photos of it. I started printing it without a raft and the material laid down on the build plate and adhere fine but there were still some globs. There wasn’t enough retraction at certain points so it’s leaving extra plastic material on there. Here’s the next problem that happened and I learned this is another fundamental issue of the M3D printer. In one direction, the printhead is moved by a belt and in the other direction is a rack and pinion type of situation. Similar to that Polar 3D printer we reviewed where when that plate was spinning around if you touched it. It would keep printing but it would shift and then the rest of your print wouldn’t end up on top of where it should be.
This is a similar situation in the M3D printer. When that printhead meets enough resistance, it skips either on the belt or on that rack and pinion, and then the rest of your print is not registered. I have some photos of this as well side by side with a print that worked well and a print that didn’t. If that print had encountered any resistance, your whole print is going to be ruined because it works on relative positioning, not an absolute positioning for the printhead. That caused a lot of problems as well. We continued trying hard with this printer. We worked with their customer support a lot because we wanted to give them a fair shake and give them an opportunity. I do this with any printer we review.
If there’s a technical problem, I work with you. I’m not out to try to trash anybody’s printer, but we’ve tried so hard with this and it did not work. I was unable to make consistent prints and this is using their filament that they supplied with the printer, their software using a Windows PC, following all their instructions, trying everything in the book that I could, all my tricks and it was difficult. The other thing that is known about the 3D printer and I expected it to be a little slower operating than some of the other printers that we’ve experienced and tested. I didn’t know how slow it was going to be until I tried to do it. Our coffee sleeve that I started to print on this printer, I only got about 70% through it before it kicked it off the build plate and didn’t work.
That normally took about seven hours to print on what I thought was a slower printer that we use a lot, which is the MakerBot. When I sliced it and started printing the coffee sleeve on the M3D printer, it told me it was going to take 29 hours to print. That is more than four times the amount of time as the MakerBot which I consider to be not the fastest printer out there. I’ve now had to reconsider that distinction. Even the 29 hours was an underestimate because it got 70% through the print at about 36 hours and then I was frustrated. I was taking time-lapse photography of the whole print when it kicked off the build plate and it was a waste of time. I’m only going to do that so many times. That’s where I downshifted into some simpler parts to test and print.
That’s an interesting thought because the reality is that when you don’t have a printer that’s extremely reliable and then it runs slower, you have more opportunities for things to go wrong during that amount of time.
There was another thing I needed to note about this printer at the time of our testing it which is their latest software. Here are one of the things that frustrated me and it’s a good lesson for 3D print companies. The slicing software, the instructions told me to go to their website and download their latest software. It doesn’t come with it in there. They send you their website to download to your computer. I followed the instructions. I downloaded the latest software and the first problem I was having of things not sticking to the build plate, I felt like the printer was not calibrated properly. It says it comes pre-calibrated right on the box from the factory so I didn’t bother recalibrating it and having all sorts of problems.
I talked to their tech support and they said, “You needed to download.” It was something like a .9 version of their software which is the latest. The tech admitted to me at one point, “When our software does the auto homing to double-check the distance from the bed at the beginning, if you slice your software with that function on there, which is the default, it deleted out all your calibration device before it starts to print.” It naturally means your print is going to fail. There’s no way that’s going to work. They had me download an older version of the slicing software, which was .6 or .7 or something like that, that didn’t have that problem. I have no problem with the fact that software is always being improved. Sometimes, there are glitches and mistakes that’s why you issue new ones and everybody’s always evolving their software as they go. I accept that and this industry accepts that in general
When your customer service department knows that you are distributing a release of software to new customers out there that doesn’t work, that’s a customer service problem. They’re going to inherently have problems with that when they start printing while following your instructions to the letter and you don’t tell people that on your website. You don’t take down that software that’s not working and revert to an earlier version that did until you fix it. It has created a bad user experience for us.
It heads into corporate systemic problems. If you build a company that doesn’t communicate well at the onset. There’s no communication between that customer service and the tech department who’s loading up that software onto that site, or there’s distrust in what one or the other is saying. You have a systemic problem that will only get magnified the more business that they do. It’s going to create a bigger rift between the two areas, and then we have a greater customer service nightmare at some point in the future. That’s a big signal that something is not going right at the organizational level.
I’m not going to out the individual who told me this. He didn’t tell me he shouldn’t be telling me this or anything. He was giving me his opinion and I wasn’t asking him. He volunteered it. I said, “Why are you distributing this software that’s not going to work, that everybody who tries to do what I’m doing using a new printer is going to fail and have problems? Why are you doing this?” I’ve recommended we pull it down as well but it’s not my call type of thing. We understand corporate structures. We’ve worked with them and at times worked in them. You have the software people who develop the software who are probably worried about covering their butts and not getting in trouble. They don’t want to admit that there’s a problem with the software. They’d rather continue making a revision of the software and try to get the new version out enough there, hopefully, before too many people notice and then there’s no problem. Rather than admit there’s a problem and take the software down. They might be reprimanded or maybe they’re worried about losing their jobs. The reality is if the leadership of the company was aware that they were distributing software that wasn’t going to work for people, they probably would have made them take it down.
It doesn’t make any business sense at all.
Unless you’re trying to sweep something under the rug that you didn’t want to admit and there are a lot of things to admire about this company. They make their products in Maryland and they’re employing a lot of people. I had such high hopes for this printer and I want them to succeed. I don’t want them to fail.
We hope that this review is constructively critical.
That’s what I’m trying to do here. It’s the cute little printer that I hope could and maybe for a lot of people it’s working. It’s unfortunate that’s the center review unit, but I’m going to stop apologizing for it. It is what it is.
I do want to also say that when you typically call up the customer service and stuff like that, you don’t identify yourself as doing a review.
Not initially and I didn’t. In fact, you’re right. I played that card at one point but for a useful purpose. Initially, all they give you is an email to customer service and there is no phone number to call. I had an email communication back and forth getting a lot of help and they were responsive. When it got to the point, especially with the Mac connection issue, it was frustrating. I was like, “I’m trying to review your product. This is a review unit.” I told them who I was and, “Can we arrange a phone call so we can talk about this? I want to try to get this going because I’m trying to review your product.” They did call me back. We had some conversation.
That’s where we want to let people know and how we’re doing this is that we try hard to keep it blind. The organization happens to tell everybody in the organization who we are and we’re reviewing the unit, and there’s nothing we can do about that. For the most part, we try to keep it blind and we call in. We try to use all their online resources. We try to act as if we just bought this. We’re the average consumer and we’re trying it to a point. We get editorial time constraints so we run out of time and we’ve got to ask some deeper dive questions. We’ve got to get somebody at higher power in.
I went through and I’m not the type of guy either that just goes and tries to call somebody rather than check their forums and check out their online resources. I went through all the frequently asked questions. Anytime I had an issue and I was troubleshooting. I went through that first and then I had to go to customer service. Regarding using only their software, there is an option in their software that you can use G-code generated from a program like Simplify3D. You can print a file, but you have to load that file into their software where there’s a place that says, “Print from G-code.” I tried doing that to solve my problems. Unfortunately, that part of their software also did not work. I reported that to them, so they’re aware of it.
Not a lot of people test that part out.
A lot of their users probably don’t have Simplify3D and wouldn’t use it. I’m trying to find any way possible to print on this printer successfully and to be able to report that. Even that function in both of the versions of the software they had me download and use would not print from a G-code file. That’s disappointing and unfortunate. Maybe I could have had some success if Simplify3D could have communicated directly with that printer.
It’s the little printer that we hoped it could but did not.
It did not for us and that’s unfortunate. I have a lot of high hopes for this company and I hope they continue to do well. I know they’re doing a lot of great things. From what I understand, there are a lot of people who are happy with it, but I can’t confirm that.
If you’ve used an M3D, you have some successful prints and you’re happy with it, we’d love to see your images, videos, whatever you want to post up to us. Instagram and Facebook us and you can do that anywhere on social media @3DStartPoint or @HazzDesign.
If you’re into printer reviews and a lot more details, you definitely want to check that out. Please do. Thanks for reading, everybody.
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