3D printing company MakerBot has announced two new printers and an official shift of focus, away from general DIY printing and toward the specialized worlds of professional design and education. The MakerBot Replicator Plus and Replicator Mini Plus are new generations of existing products, both promising a simpler process and better results. Launching today, they’re accompanied by a new software system and some supplementary services, as well as a new printing material.
The MakerBot Replicator Plus looks similar to its predecessors, but MakerBot promises that nearly every part of it has been rebuilt. That includes an extruder motion system that allows for faster and more precise prints, a build plate that will grip prints better and bend to make removing the finished product easier, and a significant reduction in noise — MakerBot says it wants its printers on desks, not in back rooms. It can print objects up to 11.6 x 7.6 x 6.3 inches, notably larger than the fifth-generation Replicator’s 9.9 x 7.8 x 5.9-inch objects. The price is $2,499, but it’s discounted to $1,999 through October 31st — cheaper than either the fifth-generation Replicator and the experimental Replicator 2X. MakerBot is building for designers who prototype new products with 3D printing, one of the most popular uses of relatively cheap printers.
The MakerBot Replicator Mini Plus, meanwhile, is an education-focused evolution of the Replicator Mini that launched in 2015. It has a slightly larger build space than the Mini, capable of printing objects that are 4 x 5 x 5 inches. It’s supposed to be 58 percent quieter, and it includes many of the same technical improvements as the Replicator Plus. It will sell for $1,299, currently discounted to $999. (The original Mini initially sold for $1,375.) MakerBot has already made significant overtures to educators, and currently says that 5,000 schools across the US are using its 3D printers.
The Replicator Plus will also support using a new material that MakerBot refers to as "Tough PLA," a plastic filament that it says will be more flexible than its normal PLA material while still printing reliably. Tough PLA isn't meant for making colorful 3D sculptures — it comes in slate gray and isn't supported by the Mini Plus — but it will theoretically make testing industrial prototypes easier.
A "very long-term play" for desktop 3D printing
Both the Replicator Plus and the Mini Plus will use MakerBot Print and MakerBot Mobile, two new software tools that are supposed to make 3D printing less daunting and more foolproof. Among other things, MakerBot Print supports a number of CAD file formats, instead of requiring designers to export objects to the standard 3D printer STL format. It also helps automatically position objects for maximally efficient printing.
One of MakerBot's goals is creating an ecosystem around its printers. For professionals, there's a portal with instructions for things like sanding already-printed models, or making molds out of them for finished products. For educators, there's a new section of the Thingiverse where teachers can upload printable objects with lesson plans, letting them share ideas for classroom activities. And overall, it wants to eliminate the anxiety over setting up its devices and fixing botched print jobs. "Fifteen minutes of class spent troubleshooting a printer is not acceptable," said director of learning Drew Lentz at a launch event today.
MakerBot CEO Jonathan Jaglom said that the printers' initial low pricing is a "very long-term play" for the future of 3D printing. Originally associated with DIY maker culture, MakerBot has struggled to find a new identity since being acquired by 3D printing giant Stratasys in 2013. The home printer market has failed to take off, and MakerBot has gone through several rounds of layoffs, even as it's moved toward building for teachers and professional designers. It opened a manufacturing center in Brooklyn in 2015, then shut it down a year later to outsource production to China. "Stratasys is really focusing in this [high-end] area, and Makerbot is obviously going to play heavily in the desktop 3D printing space," said Jaglom. It's just a question of figuring out which desktops the Replicator actually belongs on.