Lulzbot Taz Mini Review for N00bs

I’ve had a great experience thus far printing pieces from Fat Dragon Games’ Dragonlock line of modular dungeon pieces, due to the quality of the 3D models, but also due in no small part to my Lulzbot Taz Mini. It’s the third printer I’ve owned and the one that’s proven to be the most reliable by far, even beating out a more well-known, much more expensive printer that I own which has a strong (and I’m beginning to suspect, undeserved) reputation for quality. In fairness, that other printer does produce very high-quality prints when it works properly; but under-extrusion is far too common, and God help you if ever need to change out its hot end…

Out of the box, Lulzbot nails the user-friendly experience, guiding you through setup, your first print, and getting you ready to move on to experimenting on your own. Other 3D printer manufacturers, take note: this is how it’s done. The user manual and setup guide are printed on thick, high-quality paper, an unnecessary luxury to be sure, but one that subtly conveys the feeling that you’re working with a product made by people who are really good at what they do. Experienced users will likely have no need for much of the information that’s presented, but new users will appreciate how clearly and methodically everything is spelled out in the instructions. Also included is about a meter of filament, just enough to complete your very first print.

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Everyone’s favorite cephalopod mascot: the rocktopus. Rock on!

For those who are not 3D printer enthusiasts (or who, like me, desire to be but lack the mechanical aptitude), the Taz Mini is the closest thing to a consumer-level, plug-and-play printer on the market at this point. It has a self-cleaning nozzle, and a heated, auto-leveling bed (practically worth the price of admission alone!), covered in a PEI sheet. The PEI sheet has remarkable properties that create strong bed adhesion once it gets up to temperature, eliminating the need for glue, Kapton tape, or hair spray, but allows finished pieces to practically slide off once it’s cooled down.

Another strong point in the Taz Mini’s favor is that from everything I’ve heard and from my own experience, Aleph Objects (the folks behind Lulzbot) seems like an awesome company, providing excellent customer service and utilizing open-source technology as much as possible. Their service reps are helpful and enthusiastic over the phone, and they even went as far as replacing my ruined hot end at no cost to me except for shipping them the defective part. Bonus points for coolness: many of the parts on their printers are 3D-printed themselves, and they have a farm of their machines constantly at work printing out more, essentially replicating themselves. We’ll be fine provided they never become sentient.

The two biggest drawbacks to the Taz Mini are that it needs to be tethered to a computer for the duration of the print and its relatively small print size of 152mm x 152mm x 158mm (6in x6in x 6.2in). The price is in the mid-range for consumer-level printers, so these are probably concessions that had to be made in order to help keep the cost down. The Taz 5, which I have not personally used but which has great reviews, has a much bigger print bed and is a stand-alone. Of course, these benefits are reflected in the price. Furthermore, it lacks the auto-leveling and self-cleaning features of the Mini, which I strongly suspect that the Taz 6 will add. It’s also worth mentioning that even for a 3D printer, the Taz Mini runs a little loud. Not so much as to drown out nearby conversation, but enough that it can be difficult for the sounds it makes to just fade into background noise.

The Taz Mini has proven to be a reliable machine that produces excellent-quality prints. Its features and ease-of-use make it a great choice for a first step into the world of 3D printing, or for more experienced users who are more interested in simply printing rather than tinkering with the machine itself. It should be noted that its accessibility does not mean that it will limit you as you become more proficient with 3D printing. Lulzbot has developed their own version of Cura which has simplified print settings for beginners as well as advanced settings that allow you to really get under the hood.

Aleph Objects recommends using HIPS (High Impact Polystyrene, aka, plastic) with this printer. The problem I had with the ruined hot end only happened when I attempted to use cheap PLA (Polylactic acid, an organic-based filament) that I had gotten from an eBay seller. I had used HIPS before that with no problems and have had no problems since getting the replacement hot end and switching back to HIPS – which was, incidentally, also purchased at a cheap price from an eBay seller. So, it’s unclear if the problem I had was due to defective filament, error on my part, or some other factor. I may attempt to use PLA again or some other filament in the future, but for now, I think I’ll play it safe and print out more Dragonlock pieces in plain old white HIPS.

***UPDATE 5/24/16***
Since posting this, I’ve added two additional Minis to my print farm, with continued excellent performance and reliability. More importantly, I tempted fate and attempted to once again print using cheap PLA purchased from eBay. I’m happy to report that I’ve had excellent results. I’m not exactly sure what happened that caused the first print head to jam, but I’ve been using PLA for over a month and haven’t had any problems with it.

HIPS is still a good choice, but PLA has several advantages that make it my material of choice. The price point is about the same as HIPS, plus there are many more choices for colors available. More significantly, the print head and bed temperatures are lower than with HIPS, which means it takes less time for the printer to get up to temperature and start printing. Adhesion to the PEI sheet is even better than with HIPS. Because the Mini is not enclosed, I would often experience corners of larger pieces lifting off of the bed, which wasn’t really a problem for the things I normally applications (terrain pieces). However, this is something that rarely occurs using PLA.

Actually, the adhesion almost seems too good sometimes. Whereas the pieces printed in HIPS would literally detach themselves from the bed once it cooled down a little bit, the PLA pieces stay firmly in place until the bed cools down to at least 29 degrees C, and sometimes even lower. However, I’ll take this “problem” over failed or warped prints any day. Bottom line, I love the Mini more and more the longer I use it!

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