CES has become the conference of choice for the two biggest personal 3D printer manufacturers to show their latest developments. I’m talking about Stratasys-owned Makerbot and 3D Systems.
Makerbot presented 3 new models in the Replicator line, notably dropping the model numbering ala Apple with its iPad. The current lineup is referred to as 5th generation Makerbots. The Replicator Mini, with a price tag of $1375, comes to compete with the Cube from 3D systems and other preassembled 3D printers from less known manufacturers like Afinia or Solidoodle. The Replicator is the natural successor of the Replicator 2, and its 700$ price tag increase with respect to its predecesor better positions it as a professional machine (or “prosumer” machine, as it is cool to say nowadays). Finally we have the Replicator Z18, with heated build platform and a huge build volume of 42.5 litres. Its price tag of $6500 makes it only affordable to professional customers who use the machine to build final goods (so they can build more at once) or need to build larger parts for prototyping. It’s really common for industrial clients to ask for larger build volume, simply because their products are usually big (We used to have a lot of these in LEAPto3D). However it is always possible to print the object in separate parts and assemble them afterwards, often achieving a really nice result. Makerbot’s strategy is clear; Before, very few people considered buying a Replicator 2X, as its smaller sister could do almost everything at a lower price. Introducing a cheaper entry model, they make sure everyone who wants a 3D printer can have one, upselling clients with wider budget to the full featured new Replicator at a price point even higher than the previous generation 2X ($2900 vs $2800). Genius! To give some perspective of the size of the 3D printing market, Makerbot has sold 44.000 printers to date.
Makerbot’s new features
The new extruder is a long needed improvement. Makerbot’s extruder hadn’t changed much since the times of the Thing-o-Matic and its reliability left much to be desired. The quick removal system using magnets and detection of filament absence are two nice features that users have been asking for. It also looks like the gantry in these new printers is Hbot-based. Meaning the X axis motor no longer travels with the extruder when it moves in the Y direction. This is something Ultimaker and some other printers have had for a long time and helps improve print speed and quality. Other much anticipated features are related to electronics: - Camera to monitor your print and periodically share snapshots to your social networks. - Wifi and Ethernet to print wirelessly. - Full color LCD screen. I wish they went with a touch screen like the Cube. This might be due to technical reasons (electronic board unable to handle touchscreen) which is unlikely, or to avoid confusing users who used previous Replicators with knobs. - USB port to load files from a USB stick. All this new features hint a new ARM based board with a revamped firmware. Depending on how powerful of an ARM chip it is, an on-printer slicing process could be included in the firmware. This means you could print directly from an STL file in a USB stick, without previously generating the GCODE in a computer. However this is unlikely at this point.
3D Systems also revamped their Cubify line of printers, without introducing new models. Their low cost model, the Cube 3, is supposed to cost under $1000. Its direct competitor, the Replicator Mini, lacks some features found in the new Cube like a touchscreen and dual extruders to print parts in two different colors at the same time. In terms of build volume, the Cube clearly wins with its 15.25 x 15.25 x 15.25 cm versus the Replicator Mini’s 10.0 x 10.0 x 12.5 cm. The Cube is maketed as a home 3D Printer, having passed a series of safety certifications. Thanks to its new, slick design it also seen as a piece of abstract art you would put in your living room. All in all, I’m happy that unlike the first personal computer manufacturers, companies like Makerbot, 3D Systems, Ultimaker and others are trying to make 3D printers beautiful and friendly, and that will surely help with mainstream adoption. Feature wise, the Cube is way superior to the Replicator mini, and should, in theory, achieve the same build quality. The bigger brother of the Cube, the CubeX, also got a successor in the CubePro. This sub $5000 model is supposed to compete with the Replicator Z18 for build volume. 27.3 x 27.3 x 24.1 cm of the CubePro versus Replicator Z18’s 30.5 x 30.5 x 45.7 cm. The difference is mostly in the Z or vertical axis, which is usually not a problem since very rarely you want to print an object with a huge base and very tall.
The CubePro has the option to add up to 2 additional extruders. It is interesting to see what the approach to multiple extruders from both companies is: Makerbot used to ship the original Replicator with dual extruders option. Later, dual extrusion was relegated to the experimental Replicator 2X, nowhere to be found in the Replicator 2. Now none of the new printers offer multiple extruders option. 3D Systems instead has doubled down on multiple extrusion. While the CubeX already had dual and triple extruder option, the Cube used to have a single extruder. Now the Cube ships with dual extruders by default.
I miss a middle way model from 3D Systems which would compete with the Replicator. The Cube has a very small build volume for some professionals, and the CubePro is prohibitively expensive for some others. Current professional uses of personal 3D printers include architecture firms, research laboratories and industrial design companies. The decrease in price has made some companies like Ford or Lockheed Martin provide its engineers with 3D printers in their desks for quick individual prototyping. This is what the Replicator 2, and now its successor, shines. I think 3D Systems is losing an opportunity here to build a middle way printer between the Cube and the CubePro to supply this kind of professional usage in companies.
To sum up, these new printers include some new features, improving the printing experience, while at the same time further perfecting the hardware and build quality of the machines, as you would expect from the two leading industrial 3D printer manufacturers. Nothing revolutionary in terms of technology. However the low cost Replicator Mini from Makerbot, and the Cube breaking the psychological barrier of $1000 will attract more and more people to the desktop 3D prating world in 2014. I plan to follow up with a series of posts analysing software, 3D scanning and more about these and other companies which attended CES. You can follow me on twitter @MarkVillacampa to stay tuned on these and other news about 3D printing.