3D printers get cheaper, faster - and more mainstream

3D printers get cheaper, faster - and more mainstream

It is four years since the launch of Makerbot, the DIY 3D printer. But can the latest devices demonstrated this week at New York's Marker Faire finally get 3D printing out of the garage and into the home?

3D printer firm Makerbot starts selling its 3D scanner in October, while Ultimaker has launched a bigger, faster printer.

Maker Faire pitches itself as 'the greatest show and tell on earth', a rambling, eccentric, inventive celebration of tech hackers and artists. 3D printing has always been at the heart of this colourful, crafty community, empowering the DIY community to design and build their own artwork and products on 3D printers - and helping the technology edge slowly towards the mainstream.

The latest Maker Faire in New York at the weekend saw two of the biggest players show off their new products.

Netherlands-based Ultimaker focused on refinement rather than revolution, offering a new model of their flagship printer. Improvements make it easier to use for beginners, with simpler software, a streamlined repository of objects to make and a new printing head which should melt less often.

Market leader Makerbot, targeted at the higher end of the chain, showed not a 3D printer but a 3D scanner. The $1,400 (£875) 'Digitizer' can turn physical objects into files compatible with the company’s Replicant line of printers, giving users who lack 3D modelling prowess a way of finding new things to print.

The Digitizer, which was announced by Makerbot in August, will ship in October. The scanner works with the object placed on a central turntable, which then rotates while the Digitizer shines a laser over the entire surface. At the end, it spits out a 3D model in the .thing file format used by the company’s printers.

That model is a high resolution scan of the original, containing over 200,000 polygons - the basic building block of all 3D models. But the limitations of the technology mean that not everything can be scanned.

Makerbot warns (PDF) of trying to scan objects which are “shiny, reflective or fuzzy”, as well as those with a very dark surface colour, since the laser gets absorbed rather than reflected in the right direction. The company also encourages users to manage their expectations, writing that “you will not be able to, for example, scan a hamburger and then eat the digital design".

Ultimaker, the Dutch firm which is Makerbot’s main competitor in Europe, has just launched the €1,895 Ultimaker 2 printer. A refinement of the original Ultimaker, it has the same external dimensions as its predecessor but a larger printing area inside, allowing users to print bigger objects. The company also pushed its online repository of 3D printer files, Youmagine.

As well as the build envelope, Ultimaker has focused on a number of improvements aimed at making it easier to use, including new control software, up to 60 times faster at preparing files for printing and an improved user interface.

Improvements were also made to the printer’s extruder, the head which pumps out the molten plastic from which all 3D printed objects are made. Now made almost entirely of metal, it is less likely to melt - a common problem in earlier printers.

But the big push is in the online realm. Youmagine is Ultimaker’s competitor to Thingiverse, the Makerbot-owned repository of 3D printer models. While Thingiverse isn’t specifically limited to designs which work on Makerbot’s printers, Ultimaker is hesitant to rely too strongly on a competitor’s website.

Additionally, Youmagine aims to offer an easier workflow for people who just want to print things from their printer. In the works for the Ultimaker 2 is wireless printing, allowing users to click print on the site and watch their printer get to work immediately.

But with around 500 designs uploaded, the site has a way to go to tackle Thingiverse. The market leader broke 100,000 models in June.

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