• the next generation of 3D Printers.

    One of the challenges I am facing at the moment is the replacement of the current Makerbot Cupcake printer: the printer is a year old, but the requirement of me and my kids are pushing the limit on the machine… Upgrading the hardware would work, but the cost of that would come close to half that of a new printer and the new printers offer so much more…

    Currently there are four contenders:

    – The Makerbot Replicator: a nice printer with a proven community behind it and fully assembled with dual extrusion that is supported by software and hardware. The replicator has the features you need: dual extrusion, large print volume, heated build platform and standalone operations. It lacks in compactness (versus build volume) and price ($2000)

    – The BitsfromBytes Rapman: an interesting printer with the basics covered: dual extrusion, standalone operations and a large build volume, but it lacks in a heated build platform and also does not have great Mac software… Community support will of course become more of an issue with 3DSystems now backing the Cube printer.

    – the Ultimaker also covers some basics: large build volume, compactness, standalone operations, but again lacks a heated build platform and dual extrusion. Software support is less of an issue with ReplicatorG and Cura support. As a community I would rate the Ultimaker community as #2 after Makerbot with a lot of inspired tinkerers to push the platform further. Their vision of only implementing features that are robust is a sound way to build a good platform of machines, but still allowing the operators to tweak their machines to the cutting edge, if they want to.

    Leapfrog’s Creatr is a newcomer on the scene: it has the best of features: large build volume, heated build platform and rudimentary dual extrusion support (Slic3r only supports the second extruder for support material). It is not compact and has no standalone mode, but the machine is built using quality parts and that shows in the prints generated. And considering the huge build volume, it is relatively compact… But it would occupy the better part of my current desk, if I were to put it on the desk. The service looks to be quite good (they respond to emails promptly and have solutions worked out for most issues). I can imagine that over time leapfrog may become a player to contend with, if you are looking for a robust platform with commercial support. But they will need to work out some kind of community as well and I wonder whether the community will gain enough critical mass: this will be a challenge for leapfrog after they roll out the first 50-100 machines.

    Printer Heated Build Platform Dual Extrusion Compactness Software Community
    Makerbot Replicator Yes Yes (full) Yes ReplicatorG Mac/Win/Linux #1
    BitsfromBytes Rapman No Yes (full) Yes Axon Win #3
    Ultimaker No No Yes ReplicatorG & Cura #2
    Leapfrog Creatr Yes Yes (support) No Pronterface/Slic3r or Cura<?> ???

    Faced with these options, the question of community comes up: During my workshops at the TEDxYouth@Flanders 2012, I told kids who were interested in getting a printer, that you  were not just buying a printer, but joining a community. The community was a great value for helping you tweak your printer to the best possible results and also helped you evolve your machine to your requirements.

    But now we are evolving towards assembled machines: these machines will need less tweaking and will print most objects equally well on all printers. The cutting edge will still need a community to develop different extruder heads, higher print speeds, better print qualities, but the most people will be able to use the assembled printers out of the box without much tinkering.

    I will keep my Cupcake for the tinkering part, but I want a robust printer for my kids to experiment on the development part rather than the printer part… The idea is to buy a printer that works and works well, rather than a printer than you need to make work and tinker well.

    Please note that I have experienced none of these machines in real life and that all the information here is from the company websites and/or communications. Please do correct me, if you find any errors.

  • How it all started

    About 10 years ago, I first got in touch with 3D Printing when I investigated the use of resin printers for jewellery model making… At the time the players to look at were Envisontech and 3DSystems and each of them had their individual strengths and the capabilities were bettering every time I saw the machines.

    For some years my interest stayed on that level… A tool for industry to make resin models as an alternative starting point for wax loss casting. Becoming more and more efficient over time and more and more capable. But still a supportive tech for an old way of making jewellery as it has been done for centuries… That is what the industry likes, doing things the way they have always been done.

    In the meantime, I got interested in the virtual worlds as a means to communicate more immersively and as a collaborative tool. Co-creating in 3D was something that was going to be necessary in the future, but the tools are still too crude for consumer adoption…

    Then I got in touch with the Makerbot community and the fact that you can actually own a 3D Printer at home… This opened possibilities, but I was still waiting and watching the tech maturing… What would be a good time to leap in?

    The year 2011 brought changes… the first was Baselworld 2011, there in the basement of an outlier building were the guys from Concept Laser demoing their DMLS machine… The stand was only about DMLS and they admitted the tech was not ready for prime time yet, but close enough to start generating interest… This got me excited… finally 3DPrinting as I had seen it: a new production method rivaling wax loss casting rather than supporting it.

    Next came TEDxKids@Brussels… I registered my son for it and they gave him some homework: a website 3DTin on which they needed to make some stuff… Ritik did not need a lot of nudging to get started… the interface was cumbersome and frustrating, but slowly and surely he got to building. His creation: glasses with his name on them… Something he would always have wanted, but would never be able to buy in any store, since his name is not conventional!

    The glasses were part of Joris Peel’s workshop on 3DPrinting for the kids… they got to see their creations printed and this got Ritik fired up… “You could make so many cool things!”. The next thing I see is a sale of Makerbot Cupcakes for Father’s day and being a good father, I bought one for Ritik.

    From then on, it has been one big roller coaster ride… I feel like I am 12 again and I got my first computer with a dot matrix printer… All the other kids used tapes and TV screens and I used a Mac with a mouse and floppies and could print stuff… Pretty soon, I was making my homework on the computer and got the printer to do color by swapping ribbons and lining up the paper… next came scanning using the Thunderscan and all kinds of tweaking: printing on thick paper and then soaking it in water.

    Now with the 3D Printer, Ritik is doing similar stuff, but still under parental supervision: but the parent is also a kid trapped in the body of an adult! The transformation I saw in my children by introducing them to the 3D Printer, is something I wanted to share with more people, so I did a talk and 2 workshops at the first TEDxYouth@Flanders 2011 and it was amazing to see how easily the participants accepted the fact that you could print in 3D.

    This is a short intro about who and how… Why? Because at the Materialise World Conference I saw that a lot of people have some part of the solutions and that everybody needs to share their ideas and solutions to get this thing working… And I want to do my part on this and showing what the technology is about and what cool stuff can be done with it…