[FoRK] The New MakerBot Replicator Might Just Change Your World

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Fri Sep 21 06:12:13 PDT 2012


The New MakerBot Replicator Might Just Change Your World

    By Chris Anderson 09.19.12 3:15 PM

MakerBot cofounder Bre Pettis says his new 3-D printer, the sleek Replicator
2 (shown at right), has a design that’s “Darth Vader driving KITT while being
airlifted by a Nighthawk spy plane.”

Photo: Joe Pugliese

Take the subway to an otherwise undistinguished part of Third Avenue in
Brooklyn. Knock on the door. Wait for some stylishly disheveled young man to
open it and let you in. You’ve arrived at the BotCave—the place where 125
factory workers are creating the future of manufacturing.

The BotCave is home to MakerBot, a company that for nearly four years has
been bringing affordable 3-D printers to the masses. But nothing MakerBot has
ever built looks like the new printer these workers are currently
constructing. The Replicator 2 isn’t a kit; it doesn’t require a weekend of
wrestling with software that makes Linux look easy. Instead, it’s driven by a
simple desktop application, and it will allow you to turn CAD files into
physical things as easily as printing a photo. The entry-level Replicator 2,
priced at $2,199, is for generating objects up to 11 by 6 inches in an
ecofriendly material; the higher-end Replicator 2X, which costs $2,799, can
produce only smaller items, up to 9 by 6 inches, but it has dual heads that
let it print more sophisticated objects. With these two machines, MakerBot is
putting down a multimillion-dollar wager that 3-D printing has hit its
mainstream moment.

Unlike the jerry-built contraptions of the past, the Replicator 2s are sleek,
metal, and stylish: MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis likens the design to “Darth Vader
driving Knight Rider’s KITT car while being airlifted by a Nighthawk spy
plane.” There is also the lighting. Oh, the lighting. “LEDs are part of our
core values as a company,” Pettis jokes. The new machine will glow in any
hue—”to match the color of your couch,” he says, “or like something in the
movie Tron.”

You’ve heard of 3-D printers, but you probably don’t own one yet. Pettis
thinks the Replicator 2 will change that.

Prototypes of the Replicator 2 print out test items before the machines go on
sale in September.

Photo: Joe Pugliese

Constructed of laser-cut plywood, with their internal workings on full
display, previous generations of MakerBots were for tinkerers who were as
interested in the machines themselves as they were in what they could make.
Like the Homebrew Computer Club, which helped hatch the Apple II in 1977,
MakerBot was part of what amounted to a Homebrew Printer Club, a global
movement of hobbyists taking an existing industrial technology and trying to
bring it within reach of everyone. Nearly 13,000 have been sold since
MakerBot was founded in early 2009.

And as with the early personal computers, the enabling technology emerged
before people figured out what to use it for. All you could do with those
early PCs was program them; only later did spreadsheets, word processing, and
videogames emerge (not to mention email and the World Wide Web). Similarly,
for many owners of the early 3-D printers, simply experimenting with the
devices themselves was reason enough to get one.

As the printers got more reliable, though, attention shifted from the
machines to the designs they could print. At my house, the killer app for our
MakerBots has been toys: dollhouse furniture, board game pieces, models.
Print, paint, play. Free design libraries like MakerBot’s own Thingiverse and
equivalents from Tinkercad and Autodesk mean that there are premade CAD files
available to do just about anything you can imagine. It’s simply a matter of
downloading them, modifying them if necessary, and sending them to the
MakerBot to be printed.

Last year MakerBot raised $10 million from investors, including Amazon
founder Jeff Bezos, to fund its expansion. It will need all that and more to
compete with a host of other emerging low-cost 3-D printers, including
Chinese devices and emerging copycat clones. The money is going into R&D,
engineering, manufacturing, and a new corporate HQ—everything necessary to
take a business that creates kits for hobbyists and scale it into a
corporation whose products sell at Target.

This is MakerBot’s Macintosh moment. Just as nearly 30 years ago Apple made
desktop publishing mainstream, the aim with the Replicator 2 is to take
something new to the masses: desktop manufacturing.

A generation ago, people messing around with those original Macs produced
some terrible layouts—typically a dog’s breakfast of fonts and clip art. But
then they got better. When those skills moved on to the web, an entirely new
way of publishing was born—and a new industry to go with it. Desktop
publishing changed the world.

PolyBend, printed in orange plastic on a Replicator 2 by MakerBot
artist-in-residence Marius Watz.

Photo: James Wojcik

Today most people’s first 3-D printing projects seem as unimpressive as those
first desktop-publishing efforts. But the Replicator 2 line, with its
easy-to-use software and optional dual extruder, is designed to accelerate
the learning curve to more sophisticated objects by offering higher
resolution (two to three times that of previous MakerBots), more colors, more
complex shapes, and more reliable output. Add the web’s fast-growing
libraries of free designs and it’s easy to see an emerging alternative to the
mass-production model that dominates manufacturing today. Now we can make the
Long Tail of Things—perhaps not yet with the same production quality as
mass-market fare, but far better tailored for their owner (who also happens
to be their maker) and wildly creative. What desktop fabrication represents
is a laboratory for the future, not just of manufacturing but of stuff

You might think of 3-D printing as bleeding-edge technology, relevant only to
geeks or high-end design workshops. But you may have encountered a 3-D
printer already, in circumstances so prosaic you didn’t even notice.

Let’s start at the dentist’s office. Many custom dental fittings are now 3-D
printed—like the series of mouth guards, each slightly different from the
last, that are used to change tooth alignment over months. After a dental
technician scans the current position of the teeth, all positions
intermediate to the desired end point are modeled by software and then
printed out in plastic. Also, if you’re lucky enough to have a dentist who
can replace a crown in a single sitting, it’s because models are 3-D printed
and then the replacement teeth are milled right there in the office.

And that’s just the tooth business. Practically every consumer item or
electronic gadget you own has been prototyped on a 3-D printer; ditto for the
newer buildings around you. Today you can get a custom 3-D-printed action
figure of your World of Warcraft character or your Xbox Live avatar. And if
you go to Tokyo, you can have your head scanned for a photo-realistic action
figure of yourself. (Try not to get too creeped out.)

Commercial 3-D printing works with only a few dozen types of materials,
mostly metals and plastics, but more are in the works. Researchers are
experimenting with exotic “inks” that range from wood pulp to sugar. Some
devices can extrude liquid foods, like cupcake icing and melted chocolate.
Soon we’ll be able to print electric circuits, potentially making complex
electronics from scratch.

When 3-D printers make an object, they use an “additive” technology, which is
to say they build objects layer by layer from the bottom up. (By contrast,
other computer-controlled machines, such as the CNC router and CNC mill, are
“subtractive”; they use a spinning tool to cut or grind away material.)
Software first examines the CAD file for an object and figures out how to
make it printable using the least amount of material and time. Take, for
example, a robot figurine. The external walls will be printed according to
the specs, but their thickness can vary, depending on the material; the
software will calculate the best thickness to print for sufficient strength
while minimizing the amount of material used. Typically the inside of the
body is not visible, so there is no need to print it. But without any
interior structure, the figurine could wind up too fragile. So the software
might make a honeycomb-like support matrix to provide maximum rigidity with
minimal material.

Children ask for wild toys—and with a 3-D printer, the parents can conjure
them up before their eyes.

The software then “slices” the object into horizontal layers as thin as the
printer can handle. As the printer head moves over the build area, it
deposits material along the perimeter of the object, with the software
picking a path that minimizes the distance the head must move. Then, once a
slice is finished, the printer’s build platform moves down a tiny fraction of
an inch and the head traces the next slice, laying down another layer of
material. And so it goes, layer by layer, until the object is finished.

The whole process is almost magical to watch. That’s the beauty of digital
fabrication. You don’t need to know how the machines do their work or how to
optimize their tool paths; software figures all that out. We’re moving toward
an era when, just like with your 2-D printer, you don’t have to think about
how your 3-D printer works, only what you want to produce with it.

A home 3-D printer is fun. The concept of a home 3-D printer, though, is the
beginning of a new industrial revolution. That’s because those CAD files you
created for your Replicator 2 can just as easily drive industrial robots;
MakerBots speak G-code, the standard machine control language in
manufacturing, just as the first desktop laser printers spoke Postscript, the
same language used by professional printers.

So once you have a design on your computer, you can prototype a single copy
on your desktop fabricator—or upload it to a commercial manufacturing service
and generate thousands. Essentially, you “print local” on your MakerBot and
“print global” with cloud manufacturing services ranging from Shapeways and
Ponoko to Chinese mass-production facilities found through Alibaba.com.
Modern CAD software like the free Autodesk 123D even offers wizards to make
it simple to go from one copy to many. All you have to do is click the right
buttons, enter your credit card number, and you’re in the manufacturing
business. The services will even ship the finished goods directly to

Pettis (above) with MakerBot staff in the BotCave.

Photo: Joe Pugliese

Everything about the Replicator 2—how it’s designed, made, and sold—is geared
to get it into the homes of ordinary Americans. Start with the printing
material: The entry level Replicator 2 uses an ecofriendly bioplastic called
PLA (polylactic acid), which can be made from cornstarch. Unlike other
materials, PLA doesn’t shrink very much when it cools, and overall it
requires the machine to be less fine-tuned. It’s also compostable, and as
Pettis says, it “smells like waffles” when it prints. MakerBot’s PLA will be
available on its website for as little as $48 per kilogram, enough material
to make nearly 400 chess pieces. (The Replicator 2X is designed to use ABS
plastic, the same material that Legos are made from—it’s also nontoxic, but
users should make sure to keep the room well ventilated while printing.)

MakerBot is also hoping to radically cut its delivery time to buyers.
Previous MakerBots were essentially manufactured only after an order was
already in hand, meaning that six weeks or more could go by while you waited
impatiently for your machine. That’s the sort of thing that devoted makers
will put up with, but it won’t fly with the general consumer
market—especially around the holidays, when people want gifts to arrive by
the appointed day. For MakerBot, though, this means a new level of up-front
cost before the company realizes any sales. Pettis’ goal is to have 2,100
Replicator 2s on hand by the September 19 release date, far more than it has
ever stocked of a previous product.

The company is making an even bigger gamble on retail: It’s opening a store
that same day in Manhattan, on Mulberry Street just north of Houston. Besides
selling the new machines, the store will host a mini manufacturing operation
so people can see objects being made. “You’ll be able to buy MakerBotted
things in the store that have been made right there,” Pettis says. “I expect
tour buses to stop by and kids’ faces to be glued to the window displays as
they watch products getting manufactured before their eyes.”

All of this adds up to a risky time for MakerBot, but Pettis sees the
demonstration effect as key: Just as with the early PCs, the appeal of the
devices can’t quite be understood until they’re seen in action. “Before
people buy a MakerBot, they think of all the practical applications—all the
stuff they can cross off their ‘honey-do’ list, the things they can fix
around the house”—broken parts on the bike or the dishwasher, or a new
toothbrush holder to fit a tight space. “But once they have it,” Pettis says,
“their mind flips a switch. They start printing out amazing things, wonderful

They make jewelry, geometric brainteasers, absurdist sculptures. Their
children ask for wild toys, and the users can conjure these up before their
eyes, first on a screen and then in the real world. Indeed, Pettis estimates
that when MakerBot first started, half of its operators were programmers, but
now he has seen a huge influx of parents.

The kids themselves are a given; as I’ve learned with my own children, they
already understand natively how to work with 3-D geometries onscreen, thanks
to videogames. (You may not think of The Sims or Minecraft as CAD programs,
but that’s essentially what they are.) Much as the first generation of
software entrepreneurs were kids like the young Bill Gates, who grew up with
the first machines and intuitively grasped their potential, so the next
generation of 3-D-printing innovators may be children. High schools would be
smart to bring back shop class but rename it design class, a shift that
really would entail just adding a few MakerBots to the school’s existing
computer labs. How many students wouldn’t rather design and print real things
than mock up yet another PowerPoint presentation?

But bringing an easy-to-use, reliable machine to market is not enough.
MakerBot must also fend off competitors, from the giant 3-D Systems—whose
Cube 3-D printer is also targeting mainstream users—to Chinese rivals such as
PP3DP, which makes the Up! system. MakerBot hopes that the higher resolution
of the Replicator 2 (100 microns, compared with the 200- to 250-micron
resolution of the other low-price competitors) and its ability to print
sizable objects will make it the winning choice in the $1,000-to-$2,500 price

Then there are also the sleeping giants: HP, Epson, and other 2-D printing
titans. So far they’ve been content to either license technology or focus
just on high-end professional printers. But how much longer until consumer
3-D volume becomes great enough that these giants awake? Ask Pettis and his
response is confident: “By that time, we’ll already be way ahead of them.”

By all evidence, 3-D printing has reached its inflection point, when it moves
from the sophisticated early adopters to people who just want to print
something cool. Soon, probably in the next few years, the market will be
ready for a mainstream 3-D printer sold by the millions at Walmart and
Costco. At that point, the incredible economies of scale that an HP or Epson
can bring to bear will kick in. A 3-D printer will cost $99, and everyone
will be able to buy one.

That doesn’t mean we’ll 3-D print everything. The big win of the
digital-manufacturing age is that we can have our choice between mass
production and customization. Just because you can make a million rubber
duckies in your garage doesn’t mean you should: Made on a 3-D printer, the
first ducky might run you just $20, but sadly so will the millionth—there is
no economy of scale. If you injection-mold your ducks in a factory, though,
the old fashioned way, the first may cost $10,000—for tooling the mold—but
every one after that amortizes the initial outlay. By the time you’ve made a
million, they cost just pennies apiece for the raw material. For small
batches of a few hundred duckies, digital fabrication now wins. For big
batches, the old analog way is still best.

But think about how many products actually make more sense in batches of
hundreds, not millions. For this Long Tail of Things, the only option a few
decades ago was handcrafting. Today digital fabricators can bring automated
processes and near-perfect quality to the smallest batches.

Digital fabrication also takes the expensive parts of traditional
manufacturing and makes them cheap. In mass production, the more complicated
a product is and the more changes you make, the more it costs. But with
digital fabrication, it’s the reverse: The traits that are expensive in
traditional manufacturing become free. Consider:

Variety is free: It costs no more to make every product different than to
make them all the same.

Complexity is free: A minutely detailed product, with many fiddly little
components, can be 3-D printed as cheaply as a plain block of plastic.

Flexibility is free: Changing a product after production has started means
just changing the instruction code.

When Star Trek captain Jean-Luc Picard wanted a hot beverage, he’d simply
tell the Enterprise Replicator to make “Tea. Earl Gray. Hot.” It’s no
coincidence that MakerBot chose the same name. The tea itself is still a ways
off, but the cup? You can make it today.

Chris Anderson (@chr1sa) is editor in chief of Wired. This article is adapted
from Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, copyright © Chris Anderson, to be
published by Crown Business, a division of Random House, Inc., in October.

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