MakerBot finally announced a new 3D printer and I have some thoughts.
The new “Method” printer is their first machine announcement for several years, and it is indeed substantially different from its predecessors, which were themselves largely iterations from the original design composed many years earlier by company founders.
The machine remains a filament-powered device, as is MakerBot’s entire product line, so that’s not a surprise. I speculated on what we might see in a new MakerBot device a few weeks ago, but the key gap to be filled was the eerie lack of support for materials other than PLA.
Have they filled that gap? Sort of.
The key feature on the new Method printer is its heating controls. Most 3D printers attempt to overcome the thermal expansion / warping issues by installing a heated print surface. This surface keeps the bottom layers of the print from curling – and sometimes causing release of the print and ultimately print failure.
The stray heat from the build plate is often captured passively by an enclosure surrounding the build volume, and this can increase the reliability of the print by making it less likely the remainder of the print will warp.
MakerBot, of course, faces the same issues with materials as they are physical properties that must be dealt with. But on the Method they have taken a very different approach from most vendors: they heat the entire build chamber directly and don’t bother heating the build plate at all.
Could this approach work? Absolutely it could – and I’ve seen it work many, many times. Where did I see this? On many Stratasys machines, where heated beds are simply not used. They heat the chamber instead.
By the way, Stratasys owns MakerBot.
The main advantage seen by this approach is that the entire print is thermally stable during the process. At no point is there thermal differences between any point on the print, because the entire volume of air within the chamber is kept at a precise temperature. This means that a completed print emerges from the printer at a known temperature, and then rapidly cools uniformly down to room temperature.
This approach prevents warping, but also has the added value of ensuring the parts printed are precisely what was intended. This is often not the case on other 3D printing gear where the thermal controls are less precise.
The not-heated build surface is now a spring steel plate with some type of coating that might be PEI. It’s likely they will offer differently coated plates for use with more unusual future materials.
The other interesting improvement on the Method is that the extruders and hot end have been changed somewhat to permit faster extrusions. From the images I’ve seen, it appears they’ve lengthened the hot zone through which cold material is heated. If printing more rapidly, the material would be exposed to heat for a shorter time period – unless that exposure was for a greater distance. That’s exactly what MakerBot has done.
MakerBot says the changes result in a 2X speed improvement over typical desktop 3D printers, which is quite likely true based on the hardware changes observed.
There’s two print heads in the Method, and this allows the machine to 3D print using soluble support material. That enables very easy printing of highly complex geometries, as the support structures gently dissolve rather than be pulled off with pliers, likely ruining any delicate structures. This was also a significant gap between MakerBot’s old product line and most of their competitors.
The Method includes 21 sensors, which sounds like a lot, but in fact many would be found on their previous models and those of their competitors. However, there is one interesting surprise: a humidity sensor. I’ve not seen this on other machines, but it makes a great deal of sense: humidity can ruin 3D print material, particularly nylons.
It also appears that MakerBot has finally made the switch to entirely proprietary filament cartridges, as are used by their parent, Stratasys. This will no doubt be disturbing to many in their community, but it may not matter.
[UPDATE] We’ve been informed by MakerBot that this is actually not the case – the machine is capable of 3D printing open materials. Spokesperson Bennie Sham explains:
“Our filament comes on a spool and not a cartridge like some of the Stratasys printers. There is an auxiliary port that allows a user to use a filament that does not come on a Smart Spool. We recommend the use of MakerBot filament because of testing, tuning, and the ability to us additional features of the Method printer.”
Thus it seems that MakerBot has taken the hybrid approach that some other 3D printer manufacturers have taken: providing a proven, proprietary materials option, but at the same time offering an experimental open materials option for those interested. This is a good outcome. [/UPDATE]
The materials available for the Method include only MakerBot’s very useful “Tough PLA” and PETG. No notable engineering materials are listed yet, but it is clear that this machine is designed to print with them eventually. They do say, “more to come”.
The title of this post, “MakerBot’s New Method”, refers not only to the machine, but also to their new approach to business, as indicated partially by their proprietary cartridge feature.
They’re now very directly focusing on two particular markets for their equipment, software, content and services: educators and professionals who are less experienced with 3D printing.
Everything I see in the hardware specs says they’re focusing on making certain that prints work correctly and that the printed results are themselves accurate. This is a distinguishing feature from most other 3D printer options.
Except for one: higher-end thermally controlled devices like you would see, for example, from Stratasys. That’s why they’re pricing the machine at a seemingly high US$6,499 as compared to common desktop machines, when they’re really comparing it to machines like Stratasys’ uPrint.
In many ways I see the new Method printer to be much like the venerable uPrint from Stratasys: dimensionally accurate printing, actively heated chamber, dual extruders with dissolvable support, easy to use interface, etc.
The Method could be a uPrint replacement for the Stratasys empire. Let’s watch and see if the uPrint is suddenly discontinued by Stratasys.
MakerBot’s CEO and VP of Engineering also shared their thoughts on the new product in a conversation with Fabbaloo ahead of the release, including a look at some of the Stratasys technologies incorporated.