Consumer 3D printers used to have fairly clear price points. Premade printers, like the $1,999 MakerBot Replicator I just reviewed, sold for roughly between $1,500 to $2,500. You could alternatively buy a build-it-yourself kit, like the MakerGear Mosaic 3D printer I built in January, starting around $700.
Then a little company in Brooklyn, N.Y., introduced the Solidoodle 2, a preassembled 3D printer starting at $500.
I first learned of the Solidoodle 2 at the NY Tech Day startup event last month. On a beat-up folding table way in the back of the hall sat Sam Cervantes and his tidy little printer, churning out plastic tchotchkes.
Sam has worked for MakerGear, the 3D printer maker from Ohio, and also served as MakerBot's chief operating officer. Before he got into 3D printing, he worked as an engineer for General Electric.
So Sam, as CEO and founder of Solidoodle, gives his company credibility. Having seen the Solidoodle 2 in operation, I can also say that the printer itself looks like an actual, functional product.
On the one hand, then, the Solidoodle 2 seems to completely disrupt the 3D printing market with its low price. It's hard to find a build-it-yourself kit for under $800, let alone a preassembled printer with a polished-looking metal enclosure that costs even less.
But with such a price gap between the Solidoodle and both the $1,999 Replicator and the forthcoming $1,299 3D Systems Cube 3D printer, a cynical shopper might ask what's wrong with it.
Based on its specs, nothing. It seems like a steal.
Consider the key features of each printer.
Solidoodle 2: Single extruder head, 6x6x6-inch build envelope. Cost: $499.
MakerBot Replicator: Dual extruder head, 8.9x5.7x5.9-inch build envelope, wooden frame, onboard controls, and direct printing from onboard SD card reader. Cost: $1,999 ($1,799 for single-extruder model).
3D Systems Cube: Single extruder head, 5.5x5.5x5.5-inch build envelope, plastic chassis, prints via Wi-Fi. Cost: $1,299.
At $499, the Solidoodle 2 does not include a heated build platform. I would consider that a crucial feature. Keeping the base layers of plastic warm during printing helps keep the object in place. Without that heat, the object might move around during printing, ruining it. Fortunately, Solidoodle offers a heated platform in its Pro model, for an added cost of $50. The Expert model goes for $599, and includes the heated build platform as well as the metal and acrylic outer enclosure.
Software will be a liability for the Solidoodle 2. It relies on the open-source combination of Pronterface and Skeinforge for controlling the printer and loading up prints. As I learned building the Mosaic, Pronterface is not consumer-friendly. The software does not make it easy to reorient or rescale your prints, for example.
MakerBot's ReplicatorG software (which also uses Skeinforge in the background) is easier to use, but can still be daunting. 3D Systems though is making a huge consumer push with its Cube, and has designed the software specifically with consumers in mind.
3D Systems' software might make 3D printing easier to get the hang of, but the $1,299 price tag will keep the Cube printer out of reach for many. The Replicator can boast of its dual-extruding capabilities, but at $1,999, it occupies even loftier price territory.
At $500, or $600 with the heated build platform and the metal enclosure, the Solidoodle 2 is a far more accessible entry point to 3D printing, even if its Pronterface software is hard to use. The catch will be if it turns out that Solidoodle has skimped out on component quality. It also raises the question: if you can sell a fully assembled early-generation 3D printer for $500 now, how low will prices fall as the market matures?
Solidoodle says it is sending me a printer. The review will follow once it arrives, but I expect for some of you the fact that you can now buy a preassembled 3D printer for $500 is all you need to know.