Before you consider buying a MakerBot Replicator 3D printer, ask first why you might want it. Making plastic doodads can be fun, but the novelty will fade, particularly once you discover how challenging it can be to achieve certain prints. If you want a 3D printer to experiment with, or for a professional environment where color isn't crucial, the value of the $1,999 Replicator's dual-extruder head could also be hard to justify. A single-extruder Solidoodle 2 3D printer costs just $500.
And yet, if I weren't concerned with price, and if I had the time to master the software, the hardware, and the quirks of the printing material, I would buy the MakerBot Replicator. 3D printing offers raw, creative potential on a par with the early days of personal computing. With real advances like affordable dual-extrusion capability, the Replicator leads its market. You won't currently find a more powerful consumer-level 3D printer. Just know that getting the most out of the Replicator will involve a time commitment, and a willingness to endure repeated trial-and-error in order to print certain objects successfully.
A brief, brief overview of 3D printing:
1. Acquire a 3D model file via download, by designing a model yourself, or by scanning a physical object.
2. Send that file to the 3D printer, generally via your Windows, Mac, or Linux-based computer.
3. The printer then draws from a spool of 1.75-millimeter or 3mm plastic filament, printing your design by building up layers of heated, extruded plastic.
4. Bask in the glow of having brought into existence an actual 3D object.
Unlike the MakerGear Mosaic 3D printer I wrote about in January, the MakerBot Replicator is not a build-it-yourself kit. MakerBot used to sell 3D printer build kits, but the Replicator, announced at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, is the company's first true prepackaged product.
The Replicator ships in an unassuming cardboard box, but the wooden frame and the various mechanical components are well-protected by rectangular cardboard supports, some of which contain accessory hardware. MakerBot placed the contents logically to protect the Replicator in transit, yet they're also easy to remove. If Apple has achieved the highest level of technology product packaging, MakerBot is a promising disciple.
A paper manual walks you through the few minor steps of assembling the hardware. These steps include anchoring down one cable with a plastic clip, screwing the print head to the motorized drive sled, connecting the mounting points and the plastic tubes that hold the spools of plastic filament consumables in place, and routing them into the print head.
Despite its thoughtful packaging and simple hardware setup, the Replicator still shows signs of MakerBot's DIY roots. The body of the printer is made from laser-cut plywood, an uncommon material for a finished technological product. For feet, the Replicator uses small pieces of rubber tubing that you slide onto the bottom edge of the printer's frame.
MakerBot presumably uses these materials to keep its costs down. The company might also want to reassure the 3D-printing community that by maintaining a garage-built feel, it hasn't forgotten its open-source pedigree (the printing technology behind the Replicator comes from the University of Bath's open-source RepRap project).
From the user's perspective, the rubber feet are annoying because they fall off too easily whenever you move the Replicator. The plywood will also certainly warp over time, affecting print quality to varying degrees depending on the temperature and humidity of your work environment.
Any warping might not be dramatic. MakerBot also advises that you can correct for it with the software. Still, as more 3D printers hit the market with warp-resistant plastic and metal enclosures, MakerBot might start to feel pressure to use different materials for the Replicator. Then again, against the coming consumer-level competition from large commercial printing companies like 3D Systems and (likely) Stratasys, MakerBot might also find value in preserving its printers' handmade charms.
Even if consumers come to like the MakerBot's wooden frame, I expect most complaining will be about the software.
Technically speaking, MakerBot Industries does not have direct ownership of the open-source ReplicatorG or Skeinforge software required to operate the printer. The company does have influence over their development, though. When I asked MakerBot if the company has any plans to make the software easier to install, I was told, "Yes&We released a Mac/Windows installer in February. We are working on another round of improvements to that this spring to make it even easier."
I hope MakerBot can make the software installation easier. Right now the process will intimidate novices, and MakerBot's documentation could use some clarity.
MakerBot's paper manual directs you to the online software installation guide, but that document only addresses installing ReplicatorG. It's only after you install that program that you find you also need to install the Python software interpreter. Which version of Python should you use? Better search the separate ReplicatorG wiki page.
Python bridges the gap between the ReplicatorG software and Skeinforge, a powerful software package that mostly works in the background while you print, at least until you find you need to use it.
Confused? I was. The software side of 3D printing is one of its biggest usability weaknesses, and it highlights the gap between its technical roots and its mass-market ambitions.
Look through Skeinforge and you'll find it's capable of driving 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC mills, and other fabrication devices. It shows remarkable flexibility and a wealth of configurable options, but it's clearly designed by and for engineers.
ReplicatorG can also be intimidating, but the way it helps you configure 3D models for printing is comparatively intuitive. A simple graphical interface lets you scale models to size, and rotate, mirror, or otherwise reorient them on the build platform.
To print an object on the Replicator from your computer, you open the design in ReplicatorG and then manipulate the model on the virtual build platform. From there, ReplicatorG sends the design to Skeinforge, which it works in the background to generate "gcode." Gcode is the series of instructions that tells the printer how to print an object. It determines the printer's settings (how fast to feed the plastic, how hot the build plate should be), and it also communicates the coordinates that map out each layer of plastic that makes up a 3D object.
You will spend most of your time with ReplicatorG, and once you generate gcode for a specific object, you can even edit the code manually within the same program. You might do this if you want to set your build platform at a hotter temperature than normal in order to ensure that a smaller object sticks well to the build plate, for example.
Interactions with Skeinforge directly come primarily when you want to set the Replicator to use a profile with custom printing parameters. You can make a profile that always prints very fast, for example, or that changes the build plate's default temperature from 100 degrees C to 110 degrees C for every print. You can change between profiles in ReplicatorG once you've made them via a simple dropdown menu. Learning how the various settings affect your prints is one of the primary challenges of 3D printing.
Also, if I could add any feature to the software, although it might involve some hardware tweaking as well, I wish it would let you pause a print and then resume it after a day or two. You can pause currently, but it leaves the heat elements on, meaning that you can't walk away from it for an extended duration. Some prints can take hours, and having to babysit the printer for the duration can be tedious.
Learning to use the Replicator's involves more than just the software, though, and to understand how the hardware is involved, it will help to understand the printer's unique features.
The Replicator stands out from other consumer-level 3D printers mainly because of its dual-extruder print head. No other printer under $2,000 has one. You can buy a Replicator with a single extruder head for $1,799, but the dual-extruding head (along with the larger build platform) is the Replicator's hallmark.
With the dual-extruder, you can print a single two-color object, or you can print two objects in one print job, each made from a different color. You can also print one single-color object, as with other 3D printers. The extruder motor only pushes plastic through one head at a time, so mixing colors is tricky (although not impossible). Printing two objects side by side using both heads simultaneously is also out.
The Replicator can store two spools of plastic filament on its back panel, and mounting the spools on the printer directly makes for a tidier work area since you don't need to make extra room for a freestanding spindle. It also means you can have two colors, or even two print materials, loaded onto the printer, reducing the number of times you need to load and unload filament.
An onboard control panel is another useful feature of the Replicator. Comprising a four-line LED screen and a five-button control pad, the control panel offers a level of convenience you won't find on many other 3D printers. It's via this panel that you'll launch the initial printer setup and build platform calibration, and where you control loading and unloading filament. It displays the temperature of the extruder heads and the build platform as well as the progress of a print job.
You can also use the control panel to print directly from the printer's SD card slot. You will need a computer to load design files directly onto the SD card, but once those files are on there, you can print from the MakerBot with no PC attached.
The built-in SD card slot is unique to the Replicator, but 3D Systems will offer the option to print over Wi-Fi in its forthcoming Cube 3D printer, due out later this month.
The last prominent feature of the Replicator is its large build envelope. At 8.9x5.7x5.9 inches, the Replicator lets you build the largest objects of any consumer-level 3D printer. However, successfully achieving maximum-size prints can be difficult since large objects are prone to cracks due to uneven cooling. It would also take hours to print something that big. Despite those challenges, it's of course better to have the option for large prints than not.