Printrbot Simple: First Impressions

Lao Zheng's Printrbot Simple

In mid-May I got all hopped up on endorphins from 6AM yoga and BAM! right there in my Twitter feed was an offer. The first N users who bought a Printrbot Simple would save $50 off the already low, low price of $300. My impulse control weakened by the flush of healthy qi, I had one in my shopping cart within two minutes, or roughly the time it takes me to huff and puff four sun salutations.

Two-fiddy plus shipping isn’t a budget breaker for a 3d printed squirrel magnate, and the gnomes at Interdimensional Bank of Zheng say we haven’t skimmed anything off the upgrades fund in a while, so why not, indeed.

A quick note for anyone thinking they might purchase this printer once it’s out of beta in June and available to folks other than the lucky N.

if (eval(‘yourTime’)>=eval(‘yourMoney’)):

If you’re a high school student with a few hundred bucks and a weekend to burn, grabbing the Printrbot Simple is a no-brainer. If you own a complete set of matching stemware, look elsewhere for your first 3D printer. Especially if your only exposure to 3D printing so far has been the SkyMall catalog.

Make no mistake, even more so than the Replicator1, this is a hacker’s 3D printer. You’re like two steps up from a homebrew RepRap when you get into the Printrbot Simple. If tweaking and calibration and watching prints fail while you dial in gCode ain’t your thing, purchase a different printer.

On the other hand: right after I made my first successful print on the Simple I was mobbed by Brazilian bikini models. Your mileage may vary.

On the gripping hand: as an instructional tool, the impact of the Printrbot Simple can’t be overstated. Anyone who assembles, calibrates, and prints with this bot is going to learn buckets about the ins and outs of 3D printing at a granular level.

Best of all, at $299, it’s relatively inexpensive. I’d be disappointed if hundreds of these bots don’t find their way into high school STEM clubs.

Well-to-do techie parents looking to build a 3D printer with their tweens might be the sweet spot for this bot, but Mom or Dad should be prepared to sneak back to the basement after bedtime to put in an hour or two of extra build time.

The Build

warning The Simple is a beta, so there are guaranteed to be some bumps along the road. It ships as a kit, so you’ve got to put it together yourself. You’re also paying someone else for the privilege of beta testing their hardware, which is a genius business model if ever there was one. Fortunately Printrbot is up front about that fact; “BETA” is laser-etched onto the build platform. You buys your ticket, you takes your chances.

Printrbot describes the build difficulty as “moderate.”

I am reminded of the time I went to the Thai place across town that isn’t my usual Thai place and I ordered the larb with a 7 on the 1 to 10 spicy scale which is where I like it but they use a different hotness scale and hoo doggies that’ll burn tomorrow on the way out but I could still mostly finish it. Ach, mein ass.

So maybe Printrbot’s definition of moderate is different than mine.

I’m not a complete idiot. I can read English and make logical deductions, I’ve got a well-stocked toolbox, I have an amateur’s burgeoning knowledge of electronics, and I’m not afraid to jimmy-jim-jim a part to get it to work. Surprisingly, given my pyrotechnic proclivities as a pup, I still have all ten fingers. I have a SparkFun wish list, for the love of Pete.

Even with my bona fides, I still find Printrbot’s estimate of one to two hours for assembly of the Printrbot Simple wildly optimistic. I’m sure there are wizards from the Printrbot community who can wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am this printer into a finished state in that time, but coming at this build cold I’ve probably got 8 hours put in over the course of three days. Keep build time in mind while you’re salivating over that $300 price tag.

Printrbot’s marketing claims that you can put this together with only a screwdriver. Maybe, if you’re the Last Son of Krypton or you have vise grips for hands. There are a few tools that will make this process much easier:

  • you’ll need super glue.
  • it amazes me that my kit didn’t include an Allen wrench. Maybe Printrbot figures that IKEA has acheived such market penetration that the probability of an Allen wrench being within reach is approaching 1.0 for a given location in the Western hemisphere.
  • a cordless drill with an Allen bit will speed up the assembly considerably.
  • a metric/Imperial ruler so you can tell the different bolts and screws apart
  • scissors or a hobby knife– you’ll be cutting fishing line.
  • an adjustable wrench, and maybe an M3 socket.
  • needlenose pliers
  • zip ties. You’re going to need a lot more zip ties than are included with the beta to manage all those cables.
  • painters’ tape for the print bed. No sense in marring that nice birch any more than you have to.

Most people willing to tackle this process are going to have this stuff in the toolbox anyway, I just include the list because I’m a huge fan of deflating marketing hype by emptoring my caveats.

There’s a point during assembly where one must gently fit two steel rods through laser cut plywood holes; these are the rods that stabilize the extruder arm as it traverses the lead screw. The holes are cut to very fine tolerances, so much so that it can be difficult to push the rods through.

I recommend that you put your steel rods in the freezer maybe an hour before you get started on the build. Thermal contraction will temporarily shrink them just enough to get them through the plywood. Once they warm up again they’ll be nice and snug.

rods in the freezer

Be prepared to slightly modify some of the parts that came with the kit to get them to fit. The laser cut plywood all fit together perfectly, but I had to file down the plastic edges of my hot end so that it fit into the extruder assembly. I accidentally stripped the wood around an M3 nut and had to super glue the nut in.

Not a big deal for your average maker geek, but someone expecting a snap-together 3D printer is going to be sorely disappointed around hour three. You can see where my file chewed up the top of the hot end in the closeup below.

hot end

Suggestions for Printrbot

I’d like Printrbot to etch more directions onto the wooden parts of the printer. Etched labels like “this side faces out” would be very helpful in determining orientation during the build. I got turned around a few times and ended up dismantling and reassembling the previous two steps of my build.

At the end of each step, a photo of the entire printer from multiple angles could help a lot. I kept getting disoriented and had to backtrack or skip ahead to find out what part went where.

Once you get the bot together the first print is very satisfying, but along the way there is likely to be some gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Here’s a test print of a small cylinder that I did, just to make sure everything was put together properly.

first print

Calibrating the Printrbot Simple so that your prints are the right scale is a whole other can of worms. I’ll get into that in a subsequent post sometime in the next few days. Watch this space.

13 thoughts on “Printrbot Simple: First Impressions

  1. Roger L. Waggener

    Get a piece of glass (regular glass works fine with non-heated bed PLA) that fits on your bed, affix it with a couple of pieces of that expensive blue tape and spray on an even coating of cheap hairs pray.

    Let the hairs pray dray and print away. I tried the blue tape surface and it drove me nuts with the PLA sticking semi-reliably at best. I have had ZERO problems with the hair spray setup. It’s beautiful- and much cheaper than blue tape.

  2. Tommy

    Im waiting for my PrintrBot Simple in the mail right now, unfortunately, I missed the beta. But assuming mine isn’t too far off, any additional tips for me before I get started with assembly? This is my first 3d printer, so don’t leave out anything because it should be obvious haha.

    1. zheng3 Post author

      The rods-in-the-freezer trick is the biggest thing. You might consider mounting the control board on the outside of the printer, because I’ve found that the zip tie on the Z-axis can dislodge the hot end molex connector.

      Also, set aside plenty of undisturbed time in a well-lit space. Having an egg carton handy to hold all those little parts is always a good idea. Good luck!

  3. Chris Loneberg

    I’m about to click “get it nownownow” for the Printrbot Simple on the printrbot website – but should I get the twenty bucks endstop kit as well? Or is that the same type of question a mother would ask: “Did you put your warm, wooly hat on? It is cold outside!” Do I need it? Will I miss it?

  4. Wesley

    im still deciding whether i should go with this or the Makibox A6 LT. It boast an even more mouth-watering 200$ price tag. The build area is slightly bigger(I think) but the company, Makible, hasn’t yet made a 3d printer. Should i go with the tried-and-true Printrbot or the new Makibox when it begins shipping?

    1. Chris

      I think the operative words here are “when it begins shipping”. Do you want to wait for the Makibox being available or get something that is shipping ready in 2 weeks time? (Less maybe – I got my shipping-to-you-email a week after ordering)
      But I’d say 3D-printing interested people should be prepared to buy a few different machines before completely content – it is a hobby with a lot of hours put in to it before it runs smoothly (if it ever does … 🙂
      But I get back with further chatter when my Prbot Simple has arrived and is built!

      1. Wesley

        Both the Makibox and the Printrbot are within my budget, but not much more than those. I would like to buy a kit of some type, and i have tons of time on my hands(student with little homework) I would like to have that 3d printer for about a year or more before moving on. Is the Simple right for me?

        1. Tommy

          Im in the same boat as you Wesley. I went ahead and took the plunge and went for the simple. It was a pain in the butt at first, but I’ve only had it for a few weeks now, and things are starting to go smoother. It gets a thumbs up from me. Keep me posted on what you decide. I’m curious about what other beginners like me will do.

          1. Wesley

            Actualy decided to go with the jr. It will come in the mail on Monday latest. I will reply and report my experiances on the build, print quality, etc. by about Wednesday.
            Thanks, Wesley.

          2. Wesley

            Tommy, I absolutely adore my jr. Assembly was quite a long process, but nothing too unexpected with my OCD. from opening the box to leveling the bed the assembly took about 12 hours (keep in mind this was my first real mechanical project that I have embarked upon) The advertised 1-2 hours was insanely optimistic. That being said, once I leveled the bed and configured the endstops, my first print had astonishing results. I printed the 5mm calibration cube from thingiverse and it came out amazing. the piece was nearly perfect, but had two imperfections. The bridges drooped slightly, and the top cube was a blob. a simple cooling tweak in slic3r and slower speeds on smaller layers fixed that right up. I am extremely impressed my my little $400 investment and cannot wait to print more. The results are really becoming sharp, and a few upgrades (GT2 belts, metric threaded Z rod) will only help. The whole process was not that hard, I did it without any help at all. (im still 12 and my parents know nothing about diy).

  5. Bogus

    How does the post-assembly experience (part quality, reliability etc.) stack up to other low-end systems? 400 bags of gold gets an assembled Simple which is a heck of a deal if it can hold its own against the likes of Solidoodle and advanced DIY kits.



    1. Wesley

      I’m not entirely sure, but I think the printrboard is the same model in both the simple and jr. If you are running windows, make sure to install the driver and try different baud rates if you are running mac. What software are you using? For me at least, it was almost plug and play(except for the assembly)


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