No Proprietary Filament From MakerBot Expected

By on December 23rd, 2014 in materials

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With many people wondering whether MakerBot is moving towards a proprietary filament solution, we went to the top to get answers. 

Fabbaloo had the opportunity to sit down at length with Alexander Hafner, General Manager of MakerBot Europe and asked the question that’s been bothering many long-time MakerBot operators: proprietary filament. 

From inception, MakerBot 3D printers have been able to use any filament that matched the equipment, whether from MakerBot itself or any third party. Of course, MakerBot would say they cannot guarantee results when using “foreign” filament, but many were successful using third party supplies. 

The most recent MakerBot 3D printer, the Replicator (Fifth Gen) uses a spool of unusual dimensions that’s embedded within the printer case. For third-party filament sellers, this meant they’d have to somehow change their spools’ dimensions to fit within MakerBot’s latest equipment, or hope the operator would rig up some type of external feeding platform. Many suppliers did not change their spool size, and it left the MakerBot community wondering whether this was a step towards a fully-proprietary filament solution, similar to that used by MakerBot’s owner, Stratasys, in which filament is supplied only by “chipped” canisters. We asked Hafner about this situation. 

Fabbaloo: Filament: Proprietary filament. Is that ever going to show up in MakerBot’s equipment or are you guys committed to open filament? Many people are concerned about this. 

Hafner: It is a very interesting question. 

Fabbaloo: Because some of your competitors now have proprietary filament cartridges and not a lot of people like them. 

Hafner: I don’t like cartridges either. 

People complain to me, “ok you went proprietary because you changed the spool sizes.” So I was on a podium when somebody said “why did you chip your filament?” And I said “what”? Who told you? We didn’t do that! He said he read it in a blog. And so crazy things happen. 

Anyhow, we tell people to use our filament. I think we price it very valuably. There is one reason, especially for my unit in Europe, that we have a guarantee with what we are selling and I saw a lot of bad things happening with filament that didn’t have the quality and prints failed and at the end it’s always us. We are always blamed. Sometimes it never came up that he used a different type of filament. 

We are always telling people that if you do that we’ll find out. And we have to be fair. If a customer using our filament has a problem we can much better take care of his problem. So at the end I wouldn’t think that we would do proprietary filament. 

There is another aspect on the other side. You see, there is filament that is basically proprietary because it includes a lot of IP knowledge from the specific manufacturer, the chemistry basically, so the person that built it – and we had someone here specialized in chemistry on filaments – and he said, I can build you anything, any type of polymer the only thing we have to find out is if it prints. 

So, for example, if we go into something like that we really make on a mass basis make filament available that nobody else before could print. But we worked on the chemistry very hard. We paid people for doing that for us. I find having that an IP value. So at the end it is a very special filament.

Probably there will be some kind of way for us to protect it. I don’t know if it is necessary to protect it with the machine or just tell “don’t copy it”. It could be a patent also. I think everybody should respect other companies IP values and if it has to end up with everything being proprietary then no. I don’t like that. And as I said before, I would like to see people buying a SmartExtruder and doing crazy things with it. It could fail, but he’ll never break the machine, as long as he knows what he is doing. 

We’ll even make it easier for people in the future doing that. So basically somebody could buy a replicator and even without a smart extruder and build his own one. I don’t know. And this would probably end up with somebody with another very special type of filament and being able to print with a replicator. I don’t like cartridges. No. 

By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!