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September 20, 2012

MakerBot is famed for its open-source approach to 3D printing. Or at least it was. The release of the Replicator 2 led to the revelations that the Botcave’s fourth iteration may not follow the open-source philosophy.

The open-source philosophy probably doesn’t include proprietary materials either, and simply adding ‘MakerBot’ before the ‘PLA filament’ certainly sounds like a propietary move. In the tour video Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot, says: “We offer MakerBot PLA filament in an ever expanding variety of colours.” Note ‘we offer’.

The Replicator 2 is also a pre-assembled system that is ready to use ‘right out of the box’, and is aimed at engineers and designers in the ‘prosumer’ space. In this respect, closing the system would perhaps be the best move for MakerBot — users who want to do real mid-level work with their 3D printer are likely to be less interested in open-source and more interested in good quality, reliable and repeatable builds (if I am wrong about this, let me know below).

At $2,199 the Replicator 2 is not the cheapest on the market, nor does it have the biggest build volume, so it will be interesting to see where it sits with consumers. Or prosumers. The 100 micron layer height is certainly a step forward, but in terms of build volume, the Leapfrog Creatr is much larger (1189 cu. in vs 410 cu. in) and (at €1,250) cheaper too. Admittedly, the Creatr can only achieve 200 micron layers — though it does so in ABS, PLA and PVA — and its bigger sibling, the Xeed can only match the Replicator 2's resolution in the €5k+ price range.

If MakerBot manage to make the move to the prosumer level with this new machine, they will certainly have pulled off a major 3D printing coup. If they don’t there may well be a lot of disgruntled MakerBot users out there — a quick scan of twitter turns up tweets like this from Andrew Back (@9600): “So if Makerbot don't succeed in taking on their closed source compatriots, it may just be that they killed the golden goose,” or this from Ben O’Steen (@benosteen): “So Makerbot have gone closed source. Any chance we can get a waiver that they won't fire IP suits in future at the community they took from?”

I’ve got a feeling this will go on and on…

The latest developments from MakerBot certainly take it into the territory of rivals 3D Systems (amongst others) more obviously, and if imitation is the highest form of flattery, the Rock Hill crew should be blushing. As for my references to Apple yesterday, its desire to control the user experience (often having to break a few eggs on their way to the omelette) is legendary — but something that has served it very well. If MakerBot is going to become a properly big company, it’s probably going to have to concentrate on making great products and not being all cutesy and quirky. If making great products (that just work) means alienating a few of your early adopters, then so be it, right? All's fair in love and business... From the Homegrown Computer Club to the App Store and iTunes — it’s a journey that MakerBot would do well to re-familiarise themselves with.

In another nod to the Apple experience, MakerBot also announced its first retail store in the NoHo (me neither) area of NYC! Allowing people to get hands on with the tech is important is spreading the 3D printing love, and given MakerBot’s following I am sure the store will be a huge success for them, at least in the short term.

One 3D printing power-player, Josef Prusa, has some strong feelings about what MakerBot appears to be doing, and how they're going about it. Take a look at Josef's blog here (http://josefprusa.cz/blog), and if you're not sure what qualifies him to have such opinions, take a look here (http://josefprusa.cz/about-me).

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September 20, 2012

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Open Source is not the issue

I have read a few rants in the last day or so by many about Makerbot. The way it is made to read, Open Source 3D printers based on the rep rap are the future, and how dare Makerbot steal all the IP the Open source fraternity have put into the system.

Just correct me if I am wrong but is the whole rep-rap system not founded on a patented system by Stratsys? FDM. Surely if you are going to thank anyone it is that Stratsys did not sue as soon as this all came to light?

The starting point of most open source projects is usually existing code or processes from a commercial organisation or institution or group of students. When a large commercial business starts to sponsor Open Source projects there is usually an underlying business reason, such as Oracle contributing to the OpenOffice project (attempting to take sales off Microsoft).

All this is mute though if your open source activities stay in the realms of a relatively closed community of educators, students and hobbyists. Let's be frank here. The quality of print you get off a Rep-Rap machine is not great - professional designers are, I think, very well suited to judge how the general public see these things. Show a consumer a part printed on Rep-Rap type machine (early Makerbots especially so), vs a part printed on an Objet or SLS, and I guarantee which one they will choose. So you can print things in 3D, great, but it is still tacky plastic crap.

The biggest issue I have against the low cost printers is the lack of quality. These machines are sold with the intention of falling apart, and getting the user to repair and experiment with them. That approach has zero interest for 99% of potential users. It is like buying a car and having to realign the wheels, change the oil, swap out the seats and change a tyre every time you drive it. If that's your thing, fine, but don't assume that everyone else is the same.

I'm looking for a printer that I can buy, unbox, plug in and print, and then come in tomorrow, and the day after and print items that come out with the same quality level over and over again.

As you might be aware I'm borrowing Al Deans Up! Printer at the moment and that little machine beats the quality of any rep-rap device I've seen hands down. The Up! comes from China, is built in a factory and is based on technology (no doubt copied from Stratsys) used in larger machines. The software that comes with it is easy to use. It just works. Its not pretty, but it beats the meccano style of all the rep-raps in terms of rigidity.

So for the 3D printer market to grow companies like Makerbot have to grow up as well. They have to start to be independent. They have to start to do things "closed".

Time for the low costy 3D printer industry to grow up, and stop behaving like a bunch of 10 year olds.

Kevin Quigley more than 1 years ago

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