Anyone who knows me or follows some of the work I’ve been doing at UMW knows that I am a huge fan of MakerBot. Not only have they done a tremendous amount of work to bring 3D printing to the masses through their investment in bringing the cost of 3D printing down, making the software easy to understand and use, and creating an ecosystem for sharing open source designs (and practicing what they preach by releasing all their products under open source licenses). I also have to credit them for being the catalyst for our own makerspace, the ThinkLab, at the University of Mary Washington. They’ve done a ton for this community and deserve the accolades they receive regularly for it.
Today MakerBot announced a slew of new products less than a year after the debut of the Replicator. It’s worth talking a bit about the Replicator to understand the trajectory of the company. The Replicator was the first printer that MakerBot sold only in an assembled unit. No kits. This upset a lot of hobbyists but for someone like me who had already successfully (after much blood, sweat, and tears) built a Thing-o-matic myself I was ready to buy a machine that didn’t hinge its success on my ability to solder and bolt it together properly. The ability for a person to take a machine out of the box and be up and running printing items in a matter of minutes is a great step forward for 3D printing and I absolutely agree that this is the right move. The Replicator also offered a huge build platform, dual extruders for multi-color prints, and an onboard LCD that meant you no longer needed to be tethered to a computer to print an object. Many of these features were previously available as custom upgrades on the Thing-o-matic, but to take them from experimental side projects into a fully supported feature of the machine was a great thing. It was an easy sell to consumers and schools that wanted an out-of-box great printing experience. The move away from a “hobbyist platform” was clear, and I support that move 100%.
It’s a good thing I’m not much of a betting man because when MakerBot first announced last week they’d have big news my guess was that the Replicator was too new to be replaced and they would instead offer a cheaper smaller printer to sell alongside the Replicator (maybe a few enhancements to the Replicator but nothing major since it was only a few months old). I was dead wrong. Although it appears you can still buy the original Replicator (perhaps until they run out of stock?), the Replicator 2 is the new kid on the block with a steel chassis, larger platform, and a single extruder built to print only in PLA plastic at incredibly high resolution. For those that miss the dual extruders and ABS plastic support there will be a Replicator 2X available around January of next year, but it is clearly labeled as their “experimental” model. There is no doubt that MakerBot sees the Replicator 2 as the appropriate model for a majority of users (citing how easy PLA is to print on versus warping and cracking issues with ABS plastic, and of course dualstrusion remains the red-headed step child of 3D printing with little support on the software side by MakerBot and others to make it common practice).
Speaking of software support I was extremely pleased to hear that ReplicatorG was being replaced with a new piece of software called Makerware. The interface reminds me a lot of Tinkercad (though it’s not a design program) with simple controls for adding models, moving them around, and printing them. The killer feature though is that you can now add multiple models to a build platform, arrange them the way you want, and hit print to fire them off. They’ve also included their “Miracle Grue” slicing engine to slice models a lot faster than Skeinforge ever did (up to 20x faster according to their documentation). I never had a ton of luck with Miracle Grue in the recent ReplicatorG builds so I’ll be anxious to give it a try on our original Replicator. Makerware supports all Replicator builds, but Thing-o-matics and Cupcakes are left out. Honestly that kind of makes sense because the platform wasn’t really large enough to take advantage of multiple items, however I do kind of wish I could use it just for it’s easy interface and lack of reliance on Skeinforge alone. This software along with the announcement of a new front-facing store in Manhattan completed the announcements today.
There was a lot to be excited about regarding today’s announcement, but on the same token the announcement left me with mixed feelings. Throughout the press announcement as well as in the videos Bre Pettis, the CEO and face of MakerBot, often referenced engineers and architects as the types of people that are going to love these new devices. The introductory video even says “Designed for the desktop of an engineer, researcher, creative professional, or anyone who loves to make things.” The “anyone else” tagline on the end feels like a bit of a copout. The example models they build are buildings, engine parts, gears, aircraft parts, etc. MakerBot is positioning themselves strategically here and I don’t think it’s by accident that they’re speaking to a different audience. It feels like they’re trying to compete with high end, expensive printers that are used in industry professions.
Speaking of expensive, I almost forgot to mention the price which was the biggest surprise of all. Instead of the cost of the technology dropping over time, it has now gone up. A Replicator 2 will run you $2,199 and if you want all the features you had with the original Replicator you’ll need to pony up $2,799 for the Replicator 2X. It goes without saying that these are no longer entry-level prices build at your typical “maker”. The original Replicator wasn’t cheap, but at less than $2000 for a machine with dual extruders it wasn’t beyond the capability of schools and even regular consumers to shell out. My line was always “It’s basically the price of a high-end laptop”. With prices in the mid to high $2,000 I can’t really argue that anymore. MakerBot is also offering paid support which is great for businesses and schools that can afford it and includes paid shipment of replacement parts and dedicated support staff. But again this feels like something where the rest of the community that was built around the company is left to fend for themselves in various discussion boards and wikis with little to no interaction from the company. It’s hard not to write this without feeling just a tiny bit raw about that.
There is also no mention of MakerBot continuing to support open source hardware with these new designs. Perhaps it was too geeky a thing to mention to a room full of press, but I’d love for them to state unequivocally that they continue to support open source hardware and will release the designs of these new models. In his keynote this past weekend at XOXO festival, Bre touched on the problems they’ve had as a company that tries to do as much in the open as possible when companies from China take their designs and can legally build the same printer with cheaper parts for less money. This argument also came up recently when Matt Strong unsuccessfully attempted to run a Kickstarter campaign aimed at selling a cheaper but identical Replicator. There’s no doubt that trying to remain a profitable company that is also open source is hard, but I think it’s important and I hope they haven’t had to take what was a trademark ethos for the company and set it aside in the name of competition.
MakerBot hasn’t lost me as a customer, I still think the work they’re doing to make 3D printing easier is noble. I don’t feel like there needs to be a race to the bottom with pricing for 3D printing to go mainstream. 3D printing has plenty of larger needs to address like the software side of things. The enthusiasm Bre and the rest of his team have for this space is infectious. My read on the announcements could also be colored by the fact that MakerBot as a company was talking to a room full of press and when they market their products they have to understand that. I just hope they haven’t also forgotten a large community of makers who aren’t industry professionals and are trying to bring 3D printing to the mainstream through our schools, libraries, and communities. I want to believe that’s a noble thing to be celebrated as well.