MakerBot Out of Action: Don’t Make the Same Mistake I Did

by Jason King on June 17, 2014

Stripped ExtruderAfter my recent discovery of blue painter tape for the build plate and how it can almost Eliminate Warps and Slips I found myself a new problem this week.

Everything I’ve printed so far was in my clear MakerBot PLA or my glorious purple RoboSavvy PLA. The clear is great for seeing the intricate honeycomb infill pattern I use and the purple has a really nice smooth glossy finish. I can recommend both.

Anyway, I switched over to green just to try it. After printing a few things for other people, more key rings and combs :), I switched back to clear to have another attempt at printing the Rook (castle chess piece) with a spiral staircase inside and a twisted pair of wires inside that.

Where’s the Plastic Gone?

All was going well until the extrusion stopped after only a few layers and no plastic was being extruded, it was effectively air printing nothing. Then the classic stepper motor clicking sound appeared which basically means there is some kind of jam or blockage.

Extruder PartsThis won’t damage the stepper motor by the way, they’re very tough little beasts, but I obviously had to clear the jam to continue printing. It was time to refer to the manual.

There is a section about cleaning the drive gears, which although the index pointed me to the wrong page I eventually followed. It was pretty clear and only involved removing two screws holding in the cool end fan, heat sink and stepper motor.

This is a routine task by the way so it’s not too stressful and it’s good to get used to doing it. You’ll also learn a lot about how your extruder mechanism works.

There was indeed a little plastic in the drive gear mechanism which I removed and then gave it a little brush out as the manual suggested.

Lesson #1 – when unloading filament and loading the new filament take your time as I think this was the cause of my jam. When unloading filament (maybe to swap to a different colour) be slow and try to pull out as much plastic as possible before it breaks off. You’ll be amazed at how much plastic can come out and expect it to be all stretched and malformed. I think I did this too quickly and it left some old plastic in the drive mechanism, so always be sloooow and careful.

The Real Problems Begin

Just a quick note before reading this, don’t be alarmed by the problems I’m about to report, because as you’ll see it was mostly my fault, but was a massive lesson learned…

To cut a long three day story short, from this point on I couldn’t print anything. Extrusion wasn’t smooth when I tested it (load filament and continue extruding for a while) and when it came to printing there was no extrusion at all.

After removing the fan, heat sink and stepper motor again there was PLA plastic in the thermal barrier tube but it wasn’t budging, even when pushing it manually and the heated core was at the working temperature of 230 degrees.

MakerBot YouTube videos show how to do this manual extrusion, but it didn’t work for me. All I could conclude is that I had a nozzle blockage, stopping the PLA going any further. I couldn’t push the PLA in or pull it out, because it had broken flush with the top of the thermal barrier tube, oops.

MakerBot show you how to remove the nozzle (there are various ways of cleaning them) but only for the Replicator and the Replicator X. For the Replicator 2 you have to contact support. I suspect this is because it looks more difficult to hold the heated core in place on the Replicator 2 because it only has a single extruder.

So, I logged a support ticket with MakerBot and waited… and waited. At this time of writing this I’ve waited three days and still no response. This isn’t great.

Thermal Barrier Tube UncloggedIt was time to have a good think and try a few things myself which I know wouldn’t do any damage. I eventually used a pair of pliers to stick a pin down the middle of the PLA in the thermal barrier tube. I then let it cool a little and pulled the pin out. The PLA came out with it and the blockage was gone, result.

I’ve not seen this idea documented anywhere but it worked really well for me and if in the same position again I’d certainly do it again.

What really confused me was that everything now looked fine and as good as new, but it still just wouldn’t extrude properly and would block the thermal barrier tube within seconds of trying to print. Testing did show that the extruder was clear though and plenty of PLA could be extruded, but it still looked rough.

After taking the usual bits off for probably the fifth time I noticed the stepper motor on the ‘cool’ end was warm. Hmmmm, that’s not right, as the name suggests it’s at the ‘cool’ end of the extruder. What was going on here?

My Admission of Guilt

I think it’s time to jump straight to my next big lesson learned…

Lesson #2 – when replacing the cool end heat sink make sure it’s the right way, with the vents facing the fan and the flat side touching the rectangular aluminium block. Yeah yeah, I know, how stupid am I for not realising and yes I’m embarrassed to tell you this. However, I did promise at the beginning of this series to tell it how it is, my mistakes too, so that’s what I’m doing.

Ultimately, the fan was being blocked and the heat sink wasn’t even touching the part it was meant to be cooling. This meant the cool end (including the thermal barrier tube) was too hot. PLA was melting slightly in the tube and blocking it. What PLA was being extruded was probably far too hot by then and wasn’t extruding smoothly. You get the picture by now, it was all screwed up due to my mistake.

After a quick rebuild (the correct way), I levelled the build plate and gave it a few minutes to let it all cool. Everything was great again with perfect prints every time. I even printed another comb to compare the quality with a pre problem comb and it was perfect.

3D Printed RookI attempted to print the Rook again in clear PLA. The internal spiral staircase, twisted wires and honeycomb infill are all visible and it looks great when illuminated with an LED torch.

I call it my little Ice Castle. Incidentally, some people print using glow in the dark plastic and insert LEDs into their prints afterwards to light/charge them up. They look stunning and I’m really looking forward to trying this myself.

First things first though, I’m going to browse Thingiverse to try and print something more ambitious. I also want to try adding Support Structures and Rafts so I’ll report on those as they happen. I’ve learned a lot this week, probably more than I would have liked after only 5 hours of printing, but it was an experience. As for MakerBot support, I’ll let you know if/when they get back to me, even though I solved it myself.

Thanks for reading and feel free to Like and Share this article if you found it useful. Also you can download my FREE Beginners Guide to 3D Printing at Home eBook if you wish.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah June 30, 2014 at 3:34 pm

TIP: instead of the blue tape we use build plate cover from BuildTAK. Lasts long and does amazing job!

Reply

josh March 6, 2015 at 4:44 pm

thanks for the post. I seemed to have fixed my issue by raising my printing temperature. I had it set at 215 for black but when I switched to Clear PLA I had once written down 235 worked best.

Switching the temperature (after clearing the clog) resolved the issue. I’m guessing the constant retracting / extruding for fine detail areas was pulling plastic up the tube slightly that would then turn solid. The build up after 10 mins or so would cause a solid jam.

just mentioning should someone else stumble across this page.

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Jason King March 6, 2015 at 8:07 pm

I still have issues with repeated retraction and extrusion on fine detail causing blockages. For example I can spend 5 hours printing a T-Rex skull with no issues but on the last few minutes finishing the points of the teeth it will fail, every time. Very frustrating. Thanks for sharing your solution though. I’m sure it will help me and many others reading this post. It’s also nice to know I’m not alone with this issue 🙂

Thanks,
J.

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John August 20, 2015 at 11:03 pm

Good article. I wish I only had those problems.
I print everything in ABS as my builds need to be very strong.
I’ve experienced jams before but always had another extruder to fall back on (2x) but when they both jam now you have a problem. As you said Makerbot is glacial slow to respond and I’m fortunate enough to deal directly with my seller and the unit is back in the shop again for various problems the most glaring being that it can’t print a circle and the software? is preshrinking my input model by 1.65mm usually…yes not consistently. My product is round so a circle is critical and without consistency I am forced to think I bought the wrong type/brand of printer. I’ve got a long history in 8 months ownership of problems to support my thinking but once you jump off the pier you have to swim.
More later one way or the other.
John

Reply

Jason King August 21, 2015 at 8:34 am

Hi John,

Since the many initial problems I had I’ve had very few other issues with the Makerbot Replicator 2. If you look at all my subsequent Beginner Series posts you’ll notice that things have been much better since.

I have heard bad things about the new dual extruder Makerbots and would personally stay away from dual extruders altogether, for now anyway. Unless you really need one it’s just more stuff to potentially go wrong. Although there is the argument that if one fails you always have the other to fall back on.

Incidentally, In a week or so I’ll be writing about a new PLA plastic additive called Floreon. Amongst other things this claims to create PLA which is 4 times as strong as normal PLA! I’ve also asked for a sample to review myself. The website is http://Floreon.com if you want to take a look.

Anyway, I hope things improve as I know how frustrating it is when your 3D printer breaks and just becomes a very expensive ornament.

Thanks for the comment,
Jason.

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william October 22, 2016 at 2:57 am

i have a printer problem that has just started in the last 48hrs. i noticed that the plastic PLA is set to run at 215C so when i load the filament it raises the temp of the head to 215, PLA flows well and i start my print only to watch the temp head cool down from 215…210 …200…199..198..and then you hear the stepper motor and the plastic cools in order to block and cock up my print. has anyone seen this? how do i fix this problem?

thanks

Reply

Jason King October 22, 2016 at 12:42 pm

Hi William,

I’ve had problems with my thermocoupler before and had to replace it, but nothing quite like this. You could start by checking out my thermocoupler post here:

http://3dprinthq.com/thermocoupler-cooked-nozzle-copper-finish-youtube

Then maybe join my 3D Printing Facebook Group and ask the people in there:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/3DPrintHQ

Let me know how you get on, or I’ll talk to you inside the group.

Best regards and good luck,
Jason

Reply

Thomas VanFossen December 7, 2016 at 3:24 am

You are amazing!!!! Thank you so much for sharing this problem, I have been trouble shooting my printer for the last week (when i last cleaned my extruder) and felt so stupid when you mentioned the heat sinks.

Reply

Jason King December 7, 2016 at 10:39 am

Don’t worry Thomas, it happens to the best of us 🙂 Glad I could help a bit though.

Reply

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