Yesterday, MakerBot introduced its new METHOD X manufacturing-focused 3D printer; we have more insights from company executives on its design and applications.
Ahead of its release, I spoke with CEO Nadav Goshen, Vice President of Engineering Dave Veisz, and Vice President of Product Development Johan-Till Broer for a look inside the concept for the new machine.
Focus On Manufacturing
Desktop 3D printing is no longer a consumer game — or at least not “just” for consumers. Sure there are still plenty of hobbist-level 3D printers out there, but more often companies are finding success in the two markets MakerBot decided to target in its refocus a few years back: education and professional.
The introduction of the original METHOD at the end of 2018 was squarely for the professional market; MakerBot called it the first “performance” 3D printer. METHOD X is designed to go beyond that, directly applicable to manufacturing.
Key to that manufacturing focus is materials capability: manufacturing-grade materials are necessary for manufacturing quality.
Applications run through late stages of design to making final products, in both those parts themselves and the tooling needed on that production line.
“In terms of applications that we see from METHOD X, it’s a manufacturing-focused machine, for making end-use parts in small production runs, where you would need a real ABS that’s equivalent to injection molded. This is one application we see METHOD X supporting. The second is manufacturing tools like jigs and fixtures and gauges and everything you might need on the manufacturing floor. The ABS properties are very well suited for the harsh environments in manufacturing. Last is functional prototyping. When you are prototyping you want to mimic the injection molded part, presuming you are designing a plastic part, and METHOD X can help in final stages of prototyping in a more functional form than before,” Goshen told me.
To achieve any of these uses, it’s important that the right materials be put to use. For METHOD X, that starts with ABS. Real ABS.
“As Nadav mentioned, for 3D printing material it is usually modified ABS that has different shrink rates and different properties than real ABS. If you don’t have a heated chamber, ABS tends to crack and delaminate, so desktop 3D printers use a heated build plate that helps reduce warp on first layers, but as you get away on the Z, introducing cracking, that even with modified ABS is impacted,” Broer continued.
“The idea with METHOD X to completely control the printing environment, and the heated chamber is the biggest part of that. Wherever we’re extruding we control the temperature, and below the extruder the plastic can cool gradually. This is avoiding the cracking, getting better layer bonding, much stronger parts and much better dimensional accuracy. The dimensional accuracy we provide is very similar to injection molding.”
That improved dimensional accuracy is a must for functional prototypes and the resulting end-use products, as well as for precisely made tooling, jigs, and fixtures.
Often, Broer added, fixture assembles have to fit onto pre-existing parts — he named as an example a robotic arm — “and with METHOD X we are able to hit those dimensions and create a part that fits.”
Materials For Robustness
Along with the ABS offering is an other important piece of this 3D printing puzzle: soluble supports.
There are two general areas of support materials: breakaway and soluble. Each is named accurately enough to figure out how removal goes. There are certain limitations with breakaway supports, though, that constrain designs — hands and/or tools have to get in there to snap off the supports, limiting the possibilities for design. With soluble supports, which are generally limited to use with industrial systems, soaking the print in liquid removes the supports, allowing for smoother removal and more possibilities for intricate design.
Veisz breaks down the importance of materials to what the team developed with METHOD X:
“It addresses the primary shortcomings of printing ABS on desktops, which are:
1. Material properties, in terms of getting the mechanical/thermal properties of ABS
2. Dimensional accuracy, same as when printing PLA or Tough on the METHOD, on par with what you get from injection molding
3. Ability to print with soluble supports, gives geometric freedom to print anything. Soluble support with ABS not really offered on desktop, and if it is it’s billed as an experimental solution not a robust solution, which is what we’re offering.”
As with many of the professional-level offerings of both METHOD and METHOD X, MakerBot has technology from its parent company to thank. The SR-30 soluble support available with the new system is a Stratasys material.
What exactly is the place for a robust 3D printer — that’s still desktop-sized?
When we think “industrial 3D printing system” the immediate mental image is generally more along the lines of a Stratasys system than a MakerBot. But there’s very much room for both in manufacturing operations, as “manufacturing” isn’t just one thing.
Often, Goshen noted, users think that additive manufacturing solutions for manufacturing “require you to invest in a production line, which is a significant investment… while you might not need that capability.” Sometimes scaled-up industrial installations aren’t necessary, such as for application-specific jigs and fixtures, or for low-volume production: think spare parts, think one-off components, think ergonomic tools for operators on production lines.
“As an example, there is a company we talked to that is producing small quantities of inspection devices, where it doesn’t make sense to injection mold internal components because quantities so low. So 3D printing makes the most sense for them. They wanted to use ABS because these devices are often left in the sun out on a vehicle’s dashboard, where if were made of PLA it would melt or deform. For us it was a good example of small part quantity in ABS where METHOD X can solve that kind of problem for that company,” Broer said.
METHOD v. METHOD X
The new system will begin shipping late this month, taking over the old METHOD price point of $6499 (with the original system priced down to $4999).
MakerBot has, Goshen noted, “an extensive beta program for the entire METHOD platform” through which they are
“working very closely with different customers.” While for the initial METHOD that meant users in various verticals such as aerospace and automotive, for METHOD X the focus was more on users in the manufacturing space. The company will be releasing case studies to highlight real-world results from early installations.
The company has already released a side-by-side comparison, available here, to compare and contrast the two METHOD machines.
They have the same build volumes, for example, while METHOD X operates a build chamber up to 100ºC compared to METHOD’s 60ºC.