That shiny black box up there (Oooo, shiny…) is the new Flashforge Adventurer 4 3D printer. As best as I can determine it became available for sale in early September of this year, and it’s the big brother to the Adventurer 3 which received more or less rave reviews when it came out. Flashforge has been making 3D printers for quite some time, and has a good reputation, and this printer is only going to enhance that reputation. I’ve had the A4 for almost two months and it’s been running almost nonstop since the day it arrived and I have been very impressed with it. It is currently selling for around $800 and considering how well equipped the A4 is, how well it works, and how easy it is to work with, that price is a bargain.
The A4 is a fused deposition modeling 3D printer, or FDM for short. This means it uses a solid plastic provided in the form of a thin filament which is heated to melting point and then extruded into a thin stream of liquid plastic to deposit many layers of plastic to build up the actual object. If you want a quick introduction to 3D printing in general you can take a peek at my earlier posting about how consumer grade 3D printers work and the different types here.
The A4 is big. This isn’t something you’re going to just plop down on your desk. At least not if you still want to use your desk as an actual desk. It’s basically about two feet tall and about 20 inches square. This printer is fully enclosed, so you’ll need even more space in order to get the doors to the build chamber and the filament chamber open. Plan on needing an area at least 32″ by 32″. And as for weight, it hits the scales at about 57 lbs. Print capacity is equally large, though. Print sizes can be up to 8.67″ X 7.87″ X 9.84″. And it can handle temperature ranges large enough to work with just about any kind of plastic filament on the market.
Overall appearance of the printer is excellent. A lot of 3D printers, especially the less expensive ones, look like they were cobbled together out of bits and pieces someone scrounged out of a box of parts left over from a different project. The A4 is one sleek, slick looking piece of equipment. They obviously put a great deal of thought into the overall design and appearance. Build quality is excellent as well. Everything fits together flawlessly. No creaks, groans or rattles from loose parts flopping around. It just plain looks good. I wouldn’t object to having this thing sitting in my living room. I’ve had fully enclosed printers before but they all looked like they were made out of bits of scrap metal or plastic they had laying around the factory already.
I do have one concern, though, and that’s how the heck am I going to fix it when it breaks? (Yes, it will eventually break.) How am I going to get at the filament feed motor? Or the motors that drive the screws that control vertical height? Or the motors that move the bed? How easy or hard is it going to be to disassemble this thing when I have to make repairs? Hopefully it will be a long time before I need to do that but my experience is that sooner rather than later I’ll have to replace something.
I’ve worked with several different 3D printers over the years and without a doubt the A4 was the easiest to get set up and running. The hardest part was getting it out of the massive, waist high box. Then it was just a matter of removing the packing from the inside that kept everything from rattling around, plugging (yes, plug in, no tools needed) in the appropriate extruder nozzle for the temperature range desired, doing the automated (not automatic) bed leveling procedure, loading in filament, and starting to print. Literally within about 20 minutes of getting it out of the box I was printing. This printer is about as close to “plug and play” as I’ve come across.
A word about the print nozzles for the A4. Some people have been complaining about the fact that the A4 nozzles are proprietary and cost $25 – $35 each. Nozzles for other printers are little more than brass nozzles of various sizes and cost very little. But the A4 nozzles are not just the extruder openings, they are also the heating element that melts the plastic. There are advantages to having the heating element included in the nozzle itself that I won’t get into here. And all things considered $25 to replace a nozzle that will work for hundreds of hours before it needs to be replaced isn’t that bad.
The entire printer is controlled from rather nice, color LCD touch panel located on the front of the machine. It’s is crisp and clear and easy to read. I wish it were larger, but it’s big enough to read and the touch controls work well even with my big stubby fingers.
The first thing you’ll want to do with the A4 is connect it to your WiFi system. Yes, you can use it without WiFi, but I use it exclusively because the WiFi system has been working so well and has been so convenient to use. I haven’t bothered to explore the other options. Note that early reviews back in September indicated there were some problems with the WiFi system but I haven’t noticed any of those problems except for one minor glitch that is easily solved.
Once connected to your WiFi network the printer handles firmware updates pretty much automatically. Within a minute or two of connecting it to WiFi the printer told me that there was a firmware update available and did I want to install it. I did, and it downloaded and installed the update in a couple of minutes. It’s done 3 firmware updates since I got the printer and all three were done quickly and easily.
The panel gives access to all of the printer’s functions, settings and maintenance options, as well as a handy little help screen to give you info about many of the printer’s functions and how to perform various maintenance tasks.
Thanks in large part to the design of the built in software and that little touch screen this is the easiest to use 3D printer I’ve ever worked with.
I have big fingers and often when working with small touch screens like a cell phone or other device I’ll end up with the device not responding properly. I’ve had no such problems with the A4 doing such things. The built in software is simply excellent, easy to understand, clearly worded, and easy to use.
As noted earlier the A4 is completely enclosed, as is the chamber where the filament is loaded. A door on the right side opens to give access to the filament holder and feeder. The spool is held in place on a simple spindle. The door is held shut with magnets. It will accept any standard sized spool.
Loading filament into the machine is simple, and the whole process is automated. Just select the ‘change filament’ option on the menu. The printer heats the extruder to about 240C to melt any filament in the extruder and permit it to be withdrawn. The feed motor runs in reverse, pulling the filament out of the feeder and back into the spool holding area.
After the filament is withdrawn, remove the old spool and mount the new one, and then insert the new filament into the feeder and press the “continue” button on the display. The feeder will push the new filament into the machine and once it gets into the extruder it will pause a moment to let the plastic melt and then start forcing material through the nozzle to ensure that any remaining old filament is forced out and only the new material is being extruded. Then press a button to stop, and you’re ready to start a new print.
Occasionally I would hear a sort of clunking noise when doing a print, caused by the feed mechanism slipping. I discovered that this is caused by the feed mechanism trying to push filament into the extruder faster than it could be pumped through the nozzle. Increasing the extruder temperature by 5 – 10 degrees caused the problem to go away so I’m assuming that the optimum temperature for the filament I was using was a few degrees higher than was listed. Every batch of filament is slightly different so this didn’t surprise me much.
The bed or build plate of any 3D printer has to be absolutely level in relationship to the extruder nozzle and set to the proper distance. The first thing you need to do with any 3D printer is make sure the bed is level and set to the proper distance before you start printing. I’ve seen ads for the A4 indicating that it has automatic bed leveling. This is misleading. Automatic would tend to indicate that it does it by itself. It doesn’t. But the process is automated and far easier to do than other 3D printers I’ve used.
With the last one I owned leveling the bed with a pain in the neck. It involved moving the nozzle all over the bed, sliding a bit of card between the nozzle and the bed, and then fiddling with thumb screws under the bed. I’d do this at several points all over the bed. And then do the whole thing all over again because moving one thumb screw would change the angle of the bed and screw up the distances at other points on the bed. It was basically a time consuming, fiddly and annoying job.
The A4 gets rid of the thumbscrews entirely, and the whole process is painless. It’s all done through software via the control panel.
You start the leveling process from the touch screen. The A4 places the bed in the proper position and then lowers the extruder down to what it thinks is the right height over the bed. A strip of what looks like thin, flexible stainless steel is provided to use as a thickness gauge.
You slide the gauge in between the build plate and the nozzle. The ideal distance is when you feel just barely a bit of resistance when the gauge is slid between the plate and the nozzle so the nozzle is just barely touching it. If it moves too freely, the nozzle needs to be lowered. If you can’t get the gauge between them at all or it feels too tight, you need to raise the nozzle. And that’s also done on the control panel. This process is repeated at nine different points across the surface of the build plate. It takes only a couple of minutes, there’s no fumbling around with screws to adjust the plate, it’s about as easy as it gets.
Some minor changes in the positioning of the height as the printer is used is to be expected. The surface of the plate wears over time, temperature changes can cause things to move, and just the stresses and mechanical movement of the parts of the printer can cause slight changes in dimensions so it’s a good idea to level the bed occasionally even if you don’t see problems with the printing process. The A4 is better than most printers in this regard. I’ve only done the leveling process three times in the two months or so that I’ve had it. I’ve seen 3D printers where the bed had to be leveled after almost every print.
While I’m on the subject of the bed I should point out that the A4 has a removable print bed or plate. The two back corners of the removable plate slide into slots at the back of the carrier, and the bed itself is held down by powerful magnets. The plate is also flexible allowing you to bend it to help break a printed object free of the plate. I really, really like this system. When a print is done I can take the whole thing out of the printer to make it easier to get the object off the plate.
You do have to be careful to get the plate firmly and fully slid into the slots at the back of the platform, and make sure there is no debris, bits of plastic, etc. laying on top of the carrier before you insert the plate.
Two plates were provided with the A4. The plate itself is very sturdy and covered with some kind of coating that is supposed to allow plastic to adhere to it during the printing process, but still let you get a completed print off it without having to resort to a hammer and chisel. As you can see from the photo of the plate itself (the one with the blue handles) mine is quite worn. I’ve been running this printer almost 24/7 since I got it and I’ve built dozens of objects on that plate. Despite the wear it is still holding up well.
The coating on the plate is tough but it can be damaged. I managed to scratch one badly when using a steel tool to try to get a print off it. But in normal use these plates should last for a long long time. Replacements are available. I ordered three spares at $18 each from Flashforge’s website and they arrived (shipped directly from China) in about two weeks.
The A4 also comes with other goodies. As noted, it is completely inclosed. This not only provides a more stable temperature environment that should improve the quality of the printed object, it permits the addition of a ventilation system with HEPA and charcoal filtration to reduce fumes and microplastics getting into the air in your work area. It isn’t going to do much to reduce toxic fumes from some types of plastics. That would need far better filtration than just a charcoal and HEPA combination. But it will help to reduce smell and plastic particles getting into the atmosphere. Replacement filters are available from the company.
It also has a built in camera which, while kind of a fun thing to have, isn’t really all that useful. The camera can be accessed from the FlashPrint software or supposedly the video can be streamed to “the cloud” so you can watch your printer chugging away while you’re on vacation or something I guess.
IMO the camera is little more than an interesting novelty. The video quality is, frankly, terrible. I have a $60 “action camera” sitting on the shelf that makes better videos and still images than this thing does.
Having the print bed and the extruder at the proper temperatures during the printing process is essential. I used a Fluke 62 infrared temperature gun to check the temps of both the extruder and plate during printing and found the temperatures were within +/- 1.5 degrees of what the printer was set to in the software. That’s pretty much spot on, so no complaints there either.
What really matters, of course, is how good does it print? The slick appearance and fancy user interface and all of that doesn’t mean anything if the print quality isn’t up to snuff. Fortunately the A4 excels there as well.
That’s an extreme close up of a part for a submarine model I printed with the A4. The vertical lines are part of the design. If you look closely the quality is quite good. Edges are crisp and well defined, the surface is smooth. Basically this is about as good as it gets when it comes to consumer level FDM printers.
It’s a bit easier to see details with this red plastic. Another extreme closeup showing how well the A4 reproduces fine detail where the cloth folds and the hand slips into the pocket.
Even these tiny claws turned out pretty well. There is a bit of roughness around the edges but even the knuckle joints on those tiny claws turned out pretty good. Those “fingers” up there are only about 1 – 2 mm wide so getting that kind of detail is pretty impressive, IMO.
The Software: FlashPrint 5
Of course the software on the PC side of things can be just as important as the printer’s hardware. FlashForge included FlashPrint 5 on a USB stick, and that’s what I’ve been using with the printer since I got it. Early reviews were not kind to the software but my experiences with it have been extremely positive so I suspect those early reviewers were working with a pre-production version that wasn’t ready for release.
FP5 is a slicer and a control program (sort of) for the A4. As a slicer it worked well. It handled every .STL and .OBJ file I threw at it. It can scale objects up or down in size, move them around the build plate, add supports if necessary, and give complete control over every aspect of the printing process.
Once the object is sliced you can look at every detail of what’s going on, all color coded, and then proceed to either save the sliced object to your computer, to a flash drive to plug into the printer, or stream it via WiFi to the printer. At first I saved projects to a flashdrive that was then plugged into the printer, but WiFi has been utterly reliable and far more convenient so I’ve been using that exclusively now.
There are some minor issues with the software. The automatic support generation has some problems. It regularly misses areas that definitely need some kind of support structure, and it often inserts supports where they aren’t needed. When adding supports you’re going to have to very carefully go over the entire object to make sure supports are properly placed. Fortunately adding supports manually is not hard to do. But I’ve had to do that with every slicer program I’ve ever used.
The user interface could use some work to organize it better and make some of the options easier to find but overall it isn’t bad and I’ve seen much, much worse.
In my opinion the A4 is just plain good. The $800 retail price isn’t exactly cheap but you’re getting one heck of a good 3D printer for the money. It is very well made, extremely easy to use and the quality of prints has been excellent. This about as close to being a plug and play system as I’ve seen.
The removable build plate system works very well indeed. The automated bed leveling system works well. It can automatically re-start a print in progress if something like a power failure interrupts the print. It has a huge amount of memory built into it so it can store frequently printed objects internally so you don’t even need a computer connection or a flashdrive to run off multiple copies of an object. I haven’t really found anything about this printer that I don’t like.
Are there some problems or issues? Yes, but those have been very minor.
WiFi – Occasionally the Flashprint software will lose connection to the printer, or the printer loses connection to the computer running Flashprint, after a print job has completed. In every case turning the printer off and then back on has cured the problem. After the most recent firmware update losing WiFi has become extremely rare.
Flashdrive problem – Occasionally I’ve had the printer simply lock up when trying to load a file off a flashdrive plugged into the USB port. It will start loading the file and then just stop and the screen goes blank and I have to do an off/on cycle to recover. But those exact same files will print if sent over WiFi. I have no idea why. It hasn’t been a real issue for me because I always send prints to the A4 via WiFi, but it is something I thought I should mention.
The system that senses whether or not filament is present seems to have failed. This just happened while I was writing this and I haven’t had a chance to investigate yet. The printer would stop with an error message that there was no filament, even though there was. Fortunately that can be shut off in the printer settings and I’ve been able to continue using it, but that’s something that I’m going to have to look into. Personally I can live with not having a filament sensor. I’m pretty good about making sure there’s enough filament loaded into the machine before I start a print. If worst comes to worst and the sensor needs to be replaced it looks like it costs a whopping five bucks.
And that’s about all there is. If you’re looking for a good quality 3D printer you really should take a close look at the Adventurer 4. It’s been running here nearly nonstop for almost two months now and it has been very, very good.