3D Printering: Hobbs Meters And 3D Printer Reliability

A direct link to Makerbot's  3-pack of Smart Extruders is very hard to find
A direct link to Makerbot’s 3-pack of Smart Extruders is very hard to find

It’s been a little over a year since Makerbot introduced their new line of printers, and since then there have been grumblings about the quality of the Smart Extruder that each one of these printers comes with. While there is no 3D printer extruder that will not eventually clog, wear down, or otherwise break, there are reports of the Makerbot Smart Extruder failing in only hundreds or even tens of hours of use. Considering that a single large print can take a dozen or so hours to complete, you can easily see the why the Smart Extruder is so despised and why even the availability of a three-pack of Smart Extruders is a joke in the 3D printing community.

Of course a cheap shot at Makerbot that plays right into your preconceived ideas and prejudices is far too easy. We’re here to solve problems, not just state them, so here’s what we’re working with: to quantify the long-term reliability of 3D printers we need a way to measure the mean time before failure of extruders. This is already a solved problem; it’s just not implemented.

On aircraft and some very expensive engines that power things like buildings and ships, there’s one gauge, tucked away in the control panel, that keeps track of how long the engine has been running. It’s called a hobbs meter, and the idea behind it is extremely simple – when there is power going to the Hobbs meter, it counts out hours on a small clockwork display. The resolution of the display is only tenths of an hour, usually, but that’s good enough for scheduling maintenance and to be mentioned in NTSB accident reports.

Spend enough time with a 3D printer, and you’ll quickly realize the ‘estimated print time’ is merely a ballpark, and with failed prints the ‘total print time for this object’ isn’t exactly a perfect measure of how many hours you’ve been using your extruder. Only by directly measuring how many hours are logged on a hot end or how many kilometers of filament have been sent through an extruder will you ever get an accurate idea of how long an extruder has been running, and how reliable a printer is.

Hobbs meters are available from Mouser, but you’ll be overpaying there. The better option is from a vendor in a different niche; $30 for a meter that can connect directly to the extruder heater. If enough people add this and keep proper logs, there’s a slight chance of improving the state of 3D printers with real data and not the prejudices of people trying to justify their own designs and purchases.

But perhaps that’s too hard; adding a $30 item to a printer’s BOM just for the sake of data is a bit much. Luckily, there’s an even simpler solution that won’t cost a dime. Just measure the time a heater has been on in the firmware, or save the total length of extruded filament in a microcontroller’s EEPROM. Every printer firmware out there, from Marlin to Repetier to Sprinter has in it a way to calculate both the length of time a heater has been on or how much filament has been pushed through a nozzle.

However, this is 3D printing we’re dealing with. An organized community is not a luxury we currently enjoy, and for this to work several things are needed. The first is somewhere to upload failure statistics. This would be a web site, naturally, with the ability to input the printer make, extruder and hot end model, and the time since last clogged nozzle. The website itself is just a database, some JavaScript, a bit of CSS, and some hosting costs; not hard until you consider tens of thousands of operators would have to know about this website and contribute.

Secondly, if we’re not going with mechanical Hobbs meters there would need to be a ‘total time heater on’ or ‘total length of extruded filament’ variable in the various firmwares. There would hopefully be standardized Gcodes or Mcodes to read and reset this variable.

Will this happen? Of course not. Organization isn’t a strong suit of the RepRap project, and any company that implements Hobbs meter functionality will probably lock that up in proprietary obfuscation. However, Makerbot isn’t dumb, and given they’re selling three-packs of extruders, I would bet they have some data on the MTBF of their extruders. A community-based measurement of the most common cause of broken printers is certainly possible, but like all problems it’s one of organization, not technology.

3D Printering is a semi-weekly column that digs deep into all things related to 3D Printing. If you have questions or ideas for future installments please sending us your thoughts.

3D Printering: Making A Thing With SketchUp


Imagine for a second it’s the mid-1980s and you’re looking in to desktop publishing setups. Those new LaserJets and LaserWriters are pretty cool, but imagine the desktop publishing world if you couldn’t create your own documents. Yes, it seems absurd to have a printing press that won’t create unique documents.

Now flash forward 30 years to the world of desktop manufacturing and rapid prototyping. There are dozens of repositories for 3D printable objects, but making something of your own design is apparently a dark art and arcane knowledge to everyone buying 3D printers for plastic octopodes and bottle openers.

This week, by popular demand, we’re going to be making a ‘thing’ in SketchUp Make. It’s free, easy, and surprisingly versatile despite its limited tool set. Common sense and Google algorithms dictate I link to previous tutorials in this series below:

And now on with the show. You’re gonna want to click the ‘read more’ link.

Continue reading “3D Printering: Making A Thing With SketchUp”

3D Printering: Making A Thing With OpenSCAD

This week, we’re starting off with OpenSCAD, a 3D modelling program that’s more like programming than drawing. A lot of useful 3D printable objects – including the parts for a lot of RepRaps – are designed in OpenSCAD, so hopefully by the end of this you’ll be able to design your own parts.

This isn’t meant to be a complete tutorial for OpenSCAD; I’m just demoing SCAD enough to build a simple part. Next week I’ll most likely be designing a part with AutoCAD, but if you have an idea of what software tools I should use as a tutorial to make a part, leave a note in the comments. Check out the 3D Printering guide to making a part with OpenSCAD below.

Continue reading “3D Printering: Making A Thing With OpenSCAD”