Review: LulzBot TAZ 3D printer
October 6, 2013
Boasting the largest print envelope available for less than US$5,000, the LulzBot TAZ is a RepRap-style 3D printer that presents an open, no-frills design. The TAZ 1.0 is LulzBot’s fourth generation printer, and it uses the company’s sixth generation hot-end (the nozzle and extrusion mechanism for 3D printing). This printer uses an open-source format for both its software and hardware, also known as Libre Hardware.
When the LulzBot TAZ first arrived, the biggest challenge was finding a proper place to set up the system. Having such a big print-envelope (298 mm long x 275 mm wide x 250 mm high) means the machine requires plenty of desk space. After moving a coffee table next to my desk, the LulzBot had a place to start printing. The unboxing was simple, and the machine didn’t require any tools to get printing, though a small kit of tools and utensils was provided for maintenance and cleaning up prints, as 3D prints often require some minor working once off the printer.
After the initial leveling and a couple of software downloads, the first print was underway. The TAZ’s open design doesn’t give any opportunity for noise dampening, so the test print, a small octopus, was a loud venture. Though the humming and zipping of stepper motors was noisy at first, you get used to it, a little like a noisy fan on a computer. Once the first print was completed after about 35 minutes, the fun was to begin with my first download from Thingiverse, the print that is commonly used to test 3D printers, Yoda.
This first real print lead to an email to LulzBot’s support center, as the heated bed ceased to warm up after the initial test print. The failure of the heater to operate properly can’t be pinned entirely on the company, as the printer I received for review was a demo-model that surely had been used and shipped multiple times before. Regardless, the LulzBot support staff was helpful and fast to help me troubleshoot, and eventually exchanged the printer for a different demo. After the new arrival and another test, the first real prints were underway.
After printing a small collection of statuettes and models in pink (the color of ABS filament they provided), I decided to put the TAZ through a standard test for 3D printers, moving parts. A true test to the quality and resolution of a printer is the ability to print moving parts without any extra print cleaning, working, or sanding; a test that also impresses anybody who has never seen a 3D printer before. A gear bearing, printed with a medium resolution, came off the printer perfectly, and it moved easily without any tooling or sanding.
An interesting advantage to using Libre Hardware and open-source software is that the printer, and its prints, can be customized to the finest detail. Using the Slic3r program (which splits CAD models into several layers that the printer can understand) and Pronterface (the program that interfaces with the printer), every detail of the prints can be tweaked, from deposition layer height to how solid or hollow the model will be. It even has options for the pattern of the inside support structure.
Since the software is open-source, the latest update will always be available, but the programming language was a little clunky. Some files just couldn’t be read by Slic3r or Pronterface, even though they were the same .STL format as other, readable files. Slic3r crashed often while attempting to create G-code files (the files a 3D printer understands).
Aside from the initial heater problem, the hardware operated almost flawlessly, though there were some occasional work-arounds, similar to those Gizmag employed with the FlashForge Creator. A common problem with desktop FDM (fused deposition modeling) 3D printing is that the prints sometimes peel or lift off of the heated platform. This can be remedied by a number of fixes, but I consulted the LulzBot forums. After all, the community is being used to help design the future of the company’s printers. "Thanks to a large and involved LulzBot community, we have users designing and adding new functionality all the time that other users can access immediately, and that we can then also adopt later into our product," LulzBot tells Gizmag. A successful fix came in the form of mixing a bit a the ABS filament with some acetone (nail polish remover) to create a slurry for the platform, as recommended by the forums.
Most of the parts on the TAZ are either off-the-shelf or they are 3D printed, so fixing and replacing components is easy and fairly inexpensive. There is a disadvantage in this design being so open. Some of the components are very basic (like the sensors and stepper motors), which can be a good thing, but it makes leveling the platform a tweaking nightmare.
The TAZ uses clip-sensors that help the machine to know where the home location and endpoints of the axes are. These sensors are robust and they get the job done, but the trouble comes when setting the nozzle to the proper height on the platform. The TAZ has a red hand-screw that needs to be twisted up or down to help the machine understand where the platform begins. This can make the adjustment process frustrating and time consuming. Then, leveling the platform is done with Allen wrenches and tiny turns of screws that are on the adjustable platform corners. I had very little trouble with the platform being level, but these minor component issues could lead to a redundant and frustratingly time-consuming experience.
When all is said and done, the LulzBot TAZ has a monstrous platform, giving users the opportunity to get the size of a professional 3D print with a consumer-priced printer. After printing an array of small and large objects, the TAZ seemed to be consistent, no matter the size of the print. Without the ABS slurry, larger prints had a tendency to lift from the platform, but once the mixture was set (mixed using a container provided in the toolkit for just that purpose), prints were rooted in place.
LulzBot offers an array of materials, which includes traditional ABS and PLA (standard plastic filaments), polycarbonate, HIPS (High-Impact Polystyrene plastic), nylon, and even a wood fiber filament (which smells far better than melted plastic while printing).
Though at-home 3D printing is still young, open designs like the TAZ, with the ability to almost self-replicate and even evolve, have the potential to keep makers and prosumers satisfied. LulzBot tells Gizmag that they have a "Bot-Farm" of 30 3D printers running 24 hours a day printing parts for the next generation of printers. I’m still holding out for a printer that can easily switch between making toys and chocolate sculptures, without poisoning me.