Companies will go to fascinating lengths to demonstrate their belief in a product, but there was still something refreshing in watching Solidoodle founder Sam Cervantes climbed atop his company's latest creation, beaming. After all, the announcement of a $500 printer back in April left us wondering what sorts of corners the company would have to cut to offer a product at a fraction the cost of what Cervantes' former employer, MakerBot, has brought to the market. Asked whether Solidoodle had to make any compromises to hit such an impressive price point, the one-time aerospace engineer stood by his product's build quality. And then he stood on it.
Announced in November and due out next month, the company's latest product doesn't quite hit that price point. Solidoodle had to drive cost up a fair amount to double the last generation's build platform to 512 cubic inches. Still, $799 seems like chump change for entrance into the nascent world of home 3D printing, particularly for a device that is built as solidly as Cervantes claims. The team popped by our New York offices to drop off and stand on the Solidoodle 3. Cervantes was quick to point out that the printer is still firmly in prototype mode (in fact, it's the first prototype to leave the confines of the company's headquarters), with his team doing its damnedest to get the product in the hands of customers by early next month. A quick glance at the rear of the printer confirms this -- there's a fair amount of exposed wiring back there and the spool of plastic hangs on an exposed PVC pipe.
That said, the thing still works as advertised -- well, once you get it all set up, that is. Solidoodle is in the process of transitioning to new software, and as such, the 'doodlites who brought the product in had a bit of trouble getting things started -- something they promise to iron out by the time the printer is available. One of the shortcomings here is the fact that there's no built-in card slot as with the Replicator, meaning that you've got to have your computer plugged into the printer for the entire process. That's certainly a missing feature we'd like to see implemented in future versions, along with a display for information like platform temperature.
Once you've got things started, the process is fairly straightforward. As with the Replicator, there's some calibration required, as things tend to get a bit jostled in transit and having moving part off by a few fractions of an inch can severely impact the printing process (Adjustments are made by tightening and loosening screws -- a process the company promises to streamline in the future.) Really, most of the elements will prove familiar to those who've spent time with MakerBot's entries.
There's an extruder that moves along and X and Y axes, heating up ABS plastic (the same stuff your Lego blocks are made from) drawn from a spool on the rear. Once heated sufficiently, the plastic is dispensed onto a heated platform that lowers gradually as the object being printed builds up. The heat on the platform helps both to keep the printed object in place and stop the ABS from curling -- interestingly, a coat of hairspray can be added to the build platform to help insure that the object will stick.
We had couple of false starts that required recalibration, but certainly not as many as the Replicator -- though, for the record, the Solidoodle didn't arrive through the mail and we had some employees on-hand to help out. Still, once the software was up and running, we were more or less off to the races. Like MakerBot, Solidoodle's users (around 2,000, according to Cervantes) are utilizing the Thingiverse database in a big way for 3D objects. Google Earth has also proven a popular destination for printing out scale models of monuments. We printed out a toy boat (that actually floats!) from the former, with some help from Solidoodle, and were quite pleased with the results. A software update has also allowed for an impressive maximum resolution of 0.1mm, which you can see in the squirrel above.
Left to our own accord, things got a little rockier. Since the platform on the prototype is wood, instead of metal (a fact that will change in the final version, thankfully), it is prone to some warping with temperature changes leading some of the various precision components to fall out of alignment. And getting the extruder and plate back to their proper places took several hours of frustration and some help from the Solidoodle team. We were able to make things work better, but the company does lack the clear and comprehensive support materials of MakerBot. The site has a bare-bones troubleshooting section and no easy to find video walkthroughs (there are some on Vimeo) to help you identify the various bits and pieces you'll need to manipulate.
As we did with our Replicator hands-on, we're going to hold off on calling this the watershed moment in the utopian vision of a 3D printer in every home. Certainly it's not a product for mainstream consumers just yet, but by any measure, Solidoodle's been able to do some truly amazing things at a great price point, and brought us one step closer to the prospect of picking one up for our own humble abodes.