The shape of things to come: A consumer’s guide to 3D printers

CES 2013 proved to be something of a coming out party for consumer-facing 3D printers. Sure MakerBot earned a fair amount of attention at last year’s show with the announcement of the Replicator, which snagged its share of awards from various press outlets. This year, however, saw a relative deluge in 3D-printing representation, with strong showings from 3D Systems, FormLabs, MakerBot and the cloud-based 3D printer, Sculpteo. Even with so many companies rising to prominence, the dream of truly mainstream 3D printing still feels a ways off — if that is indeed where we’re inevitably heading.

These nascent days are an exciting time, with a diverse array of companies and organizations vying to be the first to bring the technology to our homes. In a sense, many roads lead back to RepRap, the open-source, community-fueled project aimed at creating a self-replicating machine. As such, the same basic technology underlies many of these devices. At their core, these 3D printers are not unlike their 2D counterparts, offering a way to translate images on computer screens into real-world analogs — only in this case they’re objects you can hold in your hand.

Most of these work by melting plastic (largely Lego-like ABS or biodegradable PLA) and squirting it out through extruder heads. The heads operate along the X and Y axes, while the build platform (generally heated in the case of ABS and unheated for PLA) moves downward, allowing the glue gun-like extruders to build up the thin layers of plastic. Some printers rely on other technologies, many of which are rooted in the world of rapid prototyping, a category of fabrication that has been around for decades and used by companies like Boeing and Ford to created scale models of concepts.

There are a surprising number of companies and organizations currently invested in the space, be it through pre-fabricated models, kits or open-source, downloadable plans. We pulled together a list of some of the most prominent, which you can check out after the break.

3D Systems

DNP The shape of things to come A consumer's guide to the 3D printer market

The Machine: CubeX
The Price: $2,499 to $3,999
The Features: Up to three colors, up to 10.8 x 10.45 x 9.5-inch build volume, up to 125-micron resolution, touchscreen interface

3D Systems has been in the 3D-printing game since before the term was coined. The company’s CTO, Chuck Hull, invented stereolithography back in the early ’80s. Hull helped co-found the company in 1986 and it has since become one of the dominant forces in the world of industrial rapid prototyping (we saw some of those devices in action when we visited Laika Studios during the production of ParaNorman). Last year, the company released the portable Cube printer, an officially branded entry in the consumer space (which coincided with the end of the consumer-facing Botmill line it also owned). At CES this year, 3D Systems offered up a one-two punch, with the release of a faster version of the Cube and the massive CubeX. The latter can do three-color prints and create objects up to 1,070 cubic inches — or as the company puts it, “as big as a basketball.” The CubeX can use either PLA or ABS and runs you $2,499.

Bits from Bytes

3D printers

The Machine: 3DTouch
The Price: $3,490 to $4,370
The Features: Up to three extruders, 10.8 x 10.8 x 8-inch build volume (for single extruder model), up to 125-micron resolution.

Another member of the ever-expanding 3D Systems family, Bits from Bytes was acquired by the company in late 2010. It was founded in 2008 by Ian Adkins with the noble mission statement of “democratizing 3D printing for everyone.” Like so many others in the field, BFB’s models are based on the pioneering work of the open-source RepRap Project. On the low-end, the company offers a fairly barebones kit, primarily aimed at education (it sort of looks like something built with a Capsela set), which starts at $1,390 and runs up to $2,170. The more polished 3DTouch features a touchscreen and, on the high-end, three extruder heads — a luxury that costs $4,370

Eventorbot

3D printers

The Machine: Eventorbot
The Price: Assembled unit price TBD, $885 pledge on Kickstarter (now closed)
The Features: Low cost, streamlined at-home assembly, 10 x 8 x 6-inch build volume.

This Kickstarter-backed project is the brainchild of Illinois-based Duy Dang, who claims it’s “the perfect beginner 3D printer,” thanks to its low build cost and the relatively few parts required to assemble it. At its center is a single square tube that hides most of the wires. As with the open-source RepRap, many of the Eventorbot’s parts can be printed on the device itself, making it possible to continually upgrade the device

DeltaMaker

The shape of things to come A consumer's guide to 3D printers

The Machine: DeltaMaker
The Price: Assembled unit price TBD, $499 to $1,099 pledge on Kickstarter
The Features: Delta robot platform, 9-inch diameter x 11-inch build volume, 100 micron resolution

“Why should a 3D printer look like a microwave oven?” DeltaMaker’s not the first 3D printing company to ask the question (in so many words), nor is it the first to adopt this form factor. Still, we won’t begrudge anyone looking to break out of the classic 3D printer style, and certainly anything that makes the experience if watching the act all the more interesting is worth a look. The Florida-based team is around half the way to its $100,000 goal, promising a printer with a 9-inch diameter x 11-inch high build volume and a 100 micron resolution.

Delta Micro

DNP 3D printers

The Machine: Delta Micro Up! Plus / Afinia H-Series
The Price: $1,500
The Features: Prints in ABS / PLA, 5.5 x 5.5 x 5.3-inch build volume, 150-micron resolution

This Beijing-based company has taken to calling its products “micro factories.” Delta Micro offers a couple of devices, including the $900 Up! Mini. At the high-end is the $1,500 Up! Plus [pictured], which, at least from an aesthetic standpoint, is the picture of minimalist simplicity. It has a build volume of 5.5 x 5.5 x 5.3 inches and can print in both PLA and ABS plastic. The latter is available in the US under the Delta Micro name or, with the Afinia branding, carrying the H-Series name (under which it took home a “Best Overall Experience” award from Make Magazine).

Fab@Home

DNP The shape of things to come A consumer's guide to the 3D printer market

The Machine: Fab@Home Model 2
The Price: N/A
The Features: Streamlined building process compared to Model 1, printing in any number of materials: including frosting, clay and rubber caulk

More of an ongoing, open-source collaborative project than a company, Fab@Home was born out of Cornell’s Computational Synthesis Laboratory (now the Creative Machines Lab) way back in 2006 in order to build a machine that can “make real objects.” The result is a device that can print in an astonishing number of materials, including frosting, rubber caulk, ceramic clay, chocolate and ice. The Cornell team has most recently unveiled the Model 2, which offers improvements to the hardware and software as well as cheaper, easier builds and lower skill-level demands. Fab@Home doesn’t actually sell the printers, but there are ways of getting your hands on one, if you email the right people.

Filabot

3D printers

The Machine: Filabot
The Price: TBD, $490 pledge on Kickstarter (now closed)
The Features: Not a 3D printer per se, rather a device that recycles plastic into filaments for prints

The Filabot’s not a 3D printer, but it’s certainly worth mentioning in a roundup like this. The crowdfunded device aims to address one of the fundamental concerns of consumer 3D printing: waste. The machine (awarded to investors who pledged $490 or more) grinds, melts and extrudes recyclable plastic into a 1.75 or 3mm spool that can be used with at-home 3D printers. Filabot will work with a number of plastics, including ABS, HDPE and nylon (the company is in the process of testing a number of others, including PLA).

Formlabs

DNP The shape of things to come A consumer's guide to the 3D printer market

The Machine: Form 1
The Price: $3,300
The Features: Utilizes stereolithography printing for more precise prints, 4.9 x 4.9 x 6.5-inch build volume

The grad students at the MIT Media Lab shared the dream of bringing the professional quality of their school’s rapid prototyping machines to consumers. Formlabs realized that goal by eschewing the plastic extrusion technology found in most hobbyist devices for the far more precise stereolithography wherein a tray of liquid resin hardens when exposed to a laser, until the desired object is fully formed. The process is quieter than much of the competition and the resulting prints achieve a level of detail that blows away what we’ve seen even the most high-resolution consumer printers accomplish. Co-founder Maxim Lobovsky showed us a highly impressive Eiffel Tower print. At $3,300, the Form 1 isn’t the cheapest consumer-facing printer around, but given the quality it’s capable of printing, it’s a downright steal.

Leapfrog

The shape of things to come A consumer's guide to 3D printers

The Machine: Creatr
The Price: $1,683 (single extruder), $2020 (dual-extruder)
The Features: ABS, PLA and PVA printing, aluminum body, 9 x 10.6 x 8.7-inch build volume, 200 micron printing

The Creatr certainly looks the part of a semi-pro printer, but with a starting price of €1,250 ($1,683), the aluminum-encased the device clearly has consumers in mind. The tree frog-emblazoned box has a build volume of 9 x 10.6 x 8.7-inches, can print in ABS, PLA and PVA and comes with one or two extruders. Leapfrog, which was formed last year, also offers the Xeed, which carries a far pricier €5,460 ($7,353) price tag, has a tablet interface built in, to help you nab your models without the use of a computer.

LulzBot

DNP The shape of things to come A consumer's guide to the 3D printer market

The Machine: AO-101
The Price: $1,725
The Features: Rugged build quality, 7.9 x 7.5 x 3.9-inch build volume, 200-micron resolution

If you can get around the meme-centric name for a moment, you’ll find that LulzBot is a fairly serious company with some straightforward goals. As with so many others, this Aleph Objects brand took inspiration from the open-source RepRap project — in fact, the company produces hardware, tools and electronics with RepRap makers in mind. Those less interested in the construction part of the process, however, can pick up a prefab AO-101 printer from the company for $1,725. LulzBot calls the AO “the workhorse of the 3D-printing industry,” thanks to its rugged design. The testing process for the printer reportedly involved standing on it, making it print upside down and printing while strapped to the back of a truck driving down dirt roads. If you’re looking for a consumer 3D printer to bring on your next space flight, this might be the ‘bot you’re looking for.

MakerBotDNP The shape of things to come A consumer's guide to the 3D printer market

The Machine: Replicator 2x
The Price: $2,800
The Features: Easy-to-load extruder, two extruders, 9.7 x 6 x 6.1-inch build volume, 100-micron resolution

In terms of sheer exposure, MakerBot is the company to beat. Founded in 2009, the Brooklyn-based organization currently seems best positioned to help consumer 3D printing go mainstream. As with so many others, MakerBot’s roots are firmly planted in the RepRap scene, with co-founder Zach Smith having been heavily involved with the project. In spite of those roots, there’s little doubt that MakerBot is a firmly commercial venture. It’s even found itself mired in some controversy after appearing to turn away from the open-source community with the release of the Replicator 2, causing Smith, among others, to critique the company’s business model.

MakerBot made a splash at last year’s CES with the announcement of the first-generation Replicator, which featured an increased build volume (8.9 x 5.7 x 5.9 inches) and dual-extrusion (two-colors). This year, the company showed off its recently released Replicator 2 and the new 2X, the latter of which features dual-extrusion and a heated build platform, optimized for ABS plastic. Both of the second-generation Replicators also feature a number of tweaks to their predecessors’ body, including further increased build volume (11.2 x 6.1 x 6.0 inches for the Replicator 2) and the ditching of the more DIY-looking wooden aesthetic. The 2 and 2x run $2,199 and $2,799, respectively.

MakerGear

DNP The shape of things to come A consumer's guide to the 3D printer market

The Machine: M2
The Price: $1,750 (assembled)
The Features: 8 x 10 x 8-inch build area

Rick Pollack founded MakerGear in order to supply home fabricators with the necessary tools, after attempting and failing to prototype a product of his own at home. Fittingly, the site is a resource for all sorts of 3D printer bits and pieces, like platforms, motors and extruders. The company started life in 2009, creating extruders for MakerBot Cupcake printers, “because the MK4 extruder was not reliable and caused endless problems and frustration for users,” as Pollack tells us. The shipment of those extruders lead other industrious folks, including RepRap community members, to start utilizing the service. The company also offers the plans for a number of kits, including the M1 (Mosaic), M2 [pictured] and Prusa Mendel.

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