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MakerBot’s new 3D printer shows how much it’s changed in nine years

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Photo by Adi Robertson / The Verge

MakerBot is announcing a new printer that’s more polished (and more expensive) than most of its earlier products. Known as the MakerBot Method, the printer is supposed to bridge the gap between its parent company’s expensive industrial machines, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the cheaper desktop printers that MakerBot is known for. The Method could take MakerBot closer than ever to the click-and-print dream of 3D printing — while drawing it further than ever from the DIY style of its early years.

MakerBot has been working for a long time to find its niche. The 3D printing company released its first product in 2009, promoting big ideas about putting a printer in every living room. In 2013, it was acquired by major high-end printing company Stratasys. But the average person didn’t really need a 3D printer. So over the past several years, MakerBot has refocused on professional designers and schools, shrinking significantly in the process.

Photo by Adi Robertson / The Verge

The MakerBot Method is supposed to ship in early 2019, supplementing MakerBot’s Replicator desktop printer line. The $6,499 price tag is more than twice the cost of MakerBot’s core Replicator+, and the same as the extra-large Z18.

For that price, MakerBot is touting hardware and software changes that make printing more precise and reliable, without requiring a lot of tinkering or the funds for a full-scale industrial printer. CEO Nadav Goshen compares the printer to professional computer-aided design software: it’s meant to be a tool that serves its purpose and gets out of the way. “There are millions of engineers that are developing products that are now limited by the tools they have,” he laments. In the same way that software lets designers painlessly visualize 3D objects, the Method is supposed to let designers touch them.

The Method is slicker than earlier MakerBot printers. Its moving parts are neatly hidden, and prints are locked behind transparent doors, instead of sitting in an open frame. Below the printing area, two neat pop-out drawers hold spools of printing plastic. It’s a dramatic contrast to MakerBot’s first printers, which were open-source wooden kits inspired by the lo-fi RepRap project.

Ironically, MakerBot made much bolder claims about those kits. Its first CEO, Bre Pettis, described the early printers as part of an “Industrial Revolution 2,” where ordinary people would build their own alternatives to consumer goods. That revolution, of course, didn’t happen — at least, not in the way Pettis outlined. MakerBot’s printers produced small, fairly grainy plastic objects, and it abandoned the idealistic open-source model in 2012, angering parts of the 3D printing community.

MakerBot quickly started shifting away from home printing, where it was being undercut by cheap mass-market products. Pettis left the company in 2015, and at the end of 2016, Wired officially eulogized MakerBot as “the 3D printing revolution that wasn’t.” MakerBot has cut nearly three-quarters of its workforce since its peak; it’s currently employing around 160 people. It opened, then shuttered, a factory in Brooklyn’s Industry City complex. It also churned through two short-term CEOs before appointing Goshen in January of 2017.

Gallery Photo:
MakerBot Replicator printers in 2012

Meanwhile, MakerBot’s cheaper competitors failed to create a serious home printer market. Several of them shut down or went bankrupt. And one of 3D printing’s headiest projects, the 3D-printed gun outfit Defense Distributed, got embroiled in a long legal battle. (It won the right to distribute firearm blueprints earlier this year — but then its founder Cody Wilson was charged with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl, leaving its future uncertain.)

As many people have pointed out, however, 3D printing didn’t die. It moved into the kind of commercial spaces MakerBot is targeting, where it’s allowed companies to rapidly develop prototypes. These 3D printers can produce customized prosthetics, which can be especially helpful in areas without many medical resources.

Goshen says there’s “no clear use case” for a consumer 3D printer right now. This isn’t a totally new line for MakerBot, which was looking at other markets well before his tenure. But under Goshen, MakerBot has explicitly aimed all its products at two places where 3D printing has proven helpful: the hardware design world, where printers are good for rapid prototyping, and the education sector, where schools use them to teach science and technology skills. It’s showcased its hardware in MakerBot “innovation center” labs at universities, and it launched a certification program for teachers earlier this year, drawing “thousands” of participants.

MakerBot’s pitch for the Method — a reliable, easy-to-use printer that’s a step up from cheaper desktop machines — is basically the pitch for its earlier Replicators, too. But the Method incorporates features more commonly found in industrial printers, some of which are patented by Stratasys. It has a more rigid frame that lets the plastic extruder move faster without shaking the printer, and MakerBot claims it’s up to twice as fast as a desktop printer. Its build chamber is heated, so the entire print job cools at an even rate. Ideally, this means users can make tight-fitting machine parts without worrying about size variation.

Some of its most important capabilities aren’t new. MakerBot has been selling machines with multiple extruders since 2012, for instance — so one extruder can print an object with ordinary plastic filament, and another can lay down a support scaffold that dissolves in water. This lets users produce oddly shaped objects with high precision, and MakerBot says that a very experienced user could still get good results from a cheaper Replicator. But it promises the Method will let more casual users get those results with less effort, thanks to the high-end perks mentioned above, as well as other software and hardware improvements.

The Method mostly seems aimed at designers right now. Over time, however, some improvements could trickle down to its cheaper printer lineup — which could be particularly helpful for schools. “A lot of the first teachers that started using 3D printing, they were those early adopters and tinkerers,” says product marketing director Johan-Till Broer. “Once now 3D printing is going a little bit more mainstream at more schools, you need to be able to move beyond that.”

Thingiverse screenshot

MakerBot still operates one big platform for tinkerers: the Thingiverse, a site for publishing and downloading 3D printing files. Thingiverse launched in 2008, and MakerBot says it currently serves 2 million registered users. Goshen describes Thingiverse as a way to gauge and shape the future of 3D printing, by seeing what people create and encouraging them to make more of it. “We think of Thingiverse as a vehicle for us to help grow that industry, and also help us — as a company — to make sure that 3D printing becomes more accessible.”

However, MakerBot is also promoting Thingiverse specifically to teachers, and an estimated quarter of its user base is involved with education. And the top printing designs aren’t hugely groundbreaking — many are trinkets, toys, decorations, and simple household items like electronics stands or cookie cutters.

Goshen says MakerBot is iterating on its hardware “very quickly,” although he’s cautious about discussing the company’s future plans. Eventually, he imagines that 3D printing could make it into the mass market — the way that computers went from room-sized machines to smartphones over the course of several decades. “It didn’t go from mainframe to the consumer hands immediately, right?” he says. “When you try to make shortcuts, most times it doesn’t really pay off.”

That means that consumers shouldn’t hold out for their very own MakerBot printer anytime soon. If MakerBot could get the price low enough to appeal to consumers, without sacrificing print quality and user-friendliness, Goshen says that might change. But “I don’t think it’s going to happen in the next year or two. It will take more than that.” In other words, you probably won’t be making your next gadget, car part, or toy in a 3D printer. If MakerBot has its way, though, the next thing you buy might have been designed in one.