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MakerBot Replicator impressions: the dawning of 3D printers in every home?

Brian Heater

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There's something universally appealing about the concept of a 3D printer -- that concept being an automated system capable of turning computer code into real-world objects. I found myself forced to give a brief overview of the technology to AOL employees in our shared New York City office space after a particularly noisy initial run of MakerBot's Replicator. Reactions to such explanations tend to follow a fairly standard arc, beginning with wide-eyed wonder as one attempts to wrap their brain around the idea, followed almost immediately by a list of things they'd love to print out, given a chance. This is usually coupled with questions like "can it print food?" and "can I print a car?" Both of which speak to that larger, vitally important question: "can I print anything useful?" This, in turn, speaks to another important concern: "how long until it pays for itself?"

When we received an unexpected package from the folks at MakerBot last Friday, we realized it would afford us the opportunity to field some of these questions. Though, before opening the thing, we can tell you pretty confidently that, if you're looking for something that will "pay for itself," that answer won't come in a giant cardboard box with a MakerBot logo on the side. Some key questions are a little less straightforward, however, like whether or not this technology is ready for consumers -- or if it's still just the territory of enthusiasts.

Gallery: MakerBot Replicator impressions: the dawning of 3D printers in every home? | 31 Photos

The product housed inside the cardboard box may well be the best-equipped to answer that question. Sandwiched between several layers of cardboard, the Replicator represents, arguably, the most mainstream example of a consumer-facing 3D printer on the market today, clocking in it at a (relatively) reasonable $2,000. Sure, there are more inexpensive examples of the technology available for this purpose, but Brooklyn-based MakerBot has possibly done more than any company out there to help introduce 3D printing to the masses. Certainly, the Replicator marks a big step over its predecessor, the Thing-O-Matic, introducing dual-extrusion for two-colored printing and a much larger printing area, letting users create standalone objects roughly the size of a loaf of bread.

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The product also marks a step toward mainstream adoption with the simple fact that it arrives mostly assembled, so customers don't need to be experienced craftspeople to put the thing together. That's not to say, of course, that no assembly or setup is required. In fact, the unboxing process itself is a bit of a to-do. MakerBot prominently positions the printer's setup guide at the top of the package, featuring a giant "READ ME BEFORE UNPACKING!" warning on the cover, courtesy of a tiny robot mascot. For those who are more digitally-minded, MakerBot also offers up a three-minute video on its site to take you through the steps. Indeed, the Replicator packaging is a delicate ecosystem. Don't force anything out and definitely don't pick the printer up with its threaded black cable, as tempting as that might be.

The unboxing process involves a lot of tiny compartments and several instances of moving the platform up and down to remove hidden cardboard boxes and plastic bags full of bolts, wrenches and the like. The actual hardware setup isn't really all that much more complicated than the unboxing. But, while the Replicator comes mostly assembled, there are still a number of things that have to be screwed, tightened, routed and attached. After all, there are a lot of moving parts here that can't really be shipped as a complete piece. The Stepstruder (a toolhead mounted on the gantry that heats up and expels plastic through two nozzles) needs to be bolted onto its platform, the rubber legs have to be added to the bottom of the printer to avoid involuntary movement and the plastic spools of ABS plastic (the plastic found in Lego) need to be mounted atop their holders, which are attached to the rear of the printer.

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Even put together, the Replicator isn't all that slick. There's no doubt a conscious aesthetic decision at play here on the part of MakerBot. The raw presentation of the printer seems like an attempt to maintain a connection with the craft community the company was born out of. The printer's shell is made of an unfinished wood with some rough corners -- in fact, one of our editors managed to get a splinter from one of the sides during the setup process -- and the sides are held together with a number of visible screws. The majority of the Replicator's internal space is wide open, save for a build platform that can be adjusted up and down by turning a threaded screw and the gantry atop the space that houses the Stepstruder MK8, whose front is monopolized by a large pair of fans. There are large cutouts in the wood on the top and three of the four sides.

On the rear of the device, below the two spools, are ports for a USB connection and power, as well as the on / off switch (plus a little "Brooklyn" stamp, in case you were concerned about the product's origins). On the right side, just below the cutout, sits an SD card slot (the card itself ships with the printer), which is little more than a small slit in the wood. Adjacent to this, on the front of the device are a number of overly-sensitive buttons, configured into a square. There are four arrows and an "M" selection button in its center that, with the slightest brush, opens menus and starts prints. Directly to the left is a small LCD panel that is essential to interfacing with the machine -- it's also essential to setting it up.

The first time you fire up the Replicator, the display will take you through the FRE -- that's First Run Experience -- a series of step-by-step instructions it imparts one screen at a time (you can also access this later in the utilities menu). The script should take around 20 minutes, according to MakerBot's calculations. You navigate through the screens with the rubber buttons. A blinking red light in the center "M" button means it's waiting to be pressed, solid means its hard at work -- just sit tight.

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The first step in the process is leveling the build platform -- contents in the box were almost certainly tussled during transit, and you've got to recalibrate things. Leveling the platform is a particularly important step -- after all, if things are off by mere fractions of an inch, it can screw prints up completely. The process essentially involves making sure that the nozzles are the proper distance from the platform by twisting a series of screws. You test this by sliding a piece of paper between the two -- if it can't slide in, they're too close. If it can be moved up and down, they're too far apart. It's a simple enough process, in theory, but there's a good chance you're going to find yourself performing it several times before things are just right. We ran through the leveling script no less than four times before we saw optimal results.

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Next up, you'll be pulling the plastic filaments up from the spools, through two tubes and into holes at the top of the Stepstruder's head, holding it there for a few seconds, until the device's motor begins tugging at the strip. You'll have to put a bit more pressure on the filament than you'd expect, and the pulling motion of the motors is subtle enough that you might not notice it at first. Eventually, a thin string of plastic will emerge from the nozzle. In the case of our device, the plastic emerged with a green color, slowly turning black as it slid out like hot, plastic soft serve ice cream. On the other side, red plastic slowly lightened into white. The Replicator ships with a small plastic square its makers use to test the printer in order to make sure that everything is running well. In the case of ours, the square was red and green -- the plastic in our own spools, meanwhile, was white and black. The system needed to melt down and extrude the reminder of the last batch before moving on to the new spools.

It's this process, ultimately, that's at the center of the Replicator. A motor in the Stepstruder pulls the plastic from the spool, melting it down and extruding the contents. The configurations are created by the four-way movements of the gantry (left, right, front and back) and the up and down movement of the platform. Honestly, thinking of this like frozen yogurt isn't all that far off -- the Replicator creates solid objects by layering levels of thin plastic extrusions on top of themselves. The layered patterns are evident in final products in the ribbed consistency of their surface (some users go so far as to sand down the product after it's done printing). It's even more apparent in products in which the calibration is off, resulting in what looks to be a mess of hardened string.

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This, unfortunately, is something we saw several times early on, with a veritable Island of Doctor Moreau full of failed, mutant plastic experiments. There's a lot of troubleshooting that needs to be done out of the box because, really, there's a lot that can go wrong here. Thankfully, MakerBot's got an extremely responsive email support team that has clearly heard it all. Judging from a number of videos we consulted online, we weren't the only ones having these sorts of issues. A lot of fine-tuning is required, which is certainly a major point against recommending such a device as a consumer product. As mentioned above, the initial run of the product was a loud one -- there was a good deal of grinding noises and foundation-shaking vibrations as the Replicator went to work. The result was a big mess of plastic that looked like the someone attempting to sew for the first time.

We re-leveled the platform and tried again, tightening the gap a bit from our first pass. Things looked slightly better, but the printer's jolts were fairly unnerving. After all, we'd see the Replicator in action a number of times, including right in front of us on the Engadget Show. Its process was always audible, but now it was running like a washing machine with a handful of rocks thrown in -- a rather unsettling experience. We tightened the bolts on the body in an attempt to subdue its violent oscillations, then downloaded the ReplicatorG software from MakerBot's site, installed it on our system and tethered the printer to our laptop with a USB cord.

Settings can be adjusted on the Replicator itself by way of the LCD, but the tiny display makes these things a bit of a chore. We turned the acceleration on and the "jerk" down, so things would be a little less aggressive -- it also dawned on us that the table we were running it on might not have been a stable enough foundation, itself quaking during printing. Like a number of factors, this level of vibration can throw the printing process off completely. MakerBot support assured us that some movement is a normal part of the process and even suggested we find a way to secure the device to the table to minimize shaking.

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Before the Replicator begins printing, there's a bit of a waiting process. First, the platform itself heats (to a default 110 degrees Celsius), followed by the extruders (220 degrees Celsius by default). The extruders, naturally, melt the plastic down, while the heat from the platform plays a role in keeping the object in place as it's printed -- or, more precisely, the lattice work foundation that object is built on top of. Without the heat turned up enough, you again risk throwing the whole process off, particularly when the printer is vibrating wildly.

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We ran through the process a few more times, tweaking things along the way and running into new issues as we progressed -- like when the demo cube we were printing was knocked off the platform by the Stepstruder itself, or when the nozzle pressed down too hard on an object, which melted at the heat and stuck to the toolhead. It took several frustrating trials, but we finally printed out an acceptable object -- a small, black and white checkerboard cube. It was time, naturally, to move onto bigger and better things -- and when your boss tells you he wants nothing more than a real-life Weighted Companion Cube from Portal 2, you begrudgingly concede.

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Thankfully, printing out complicated objects doesn't require a mastery of CAD or other complex 3D modeling software. It's just a matter of going to MakerBot's Thingiverse site, finding something you like, downloading it as an .stl file and opening it up in the ReplicatorG software. The site has an impressive selection of open-source creations from enthusiasts and MakerBot employees -- it's really easy to get lost on there, as we found out during our testing. But Tim had clearly been obsessed with the idea of taking home his own piece of Aperture Science since the MakerBot team first showed us one back at CES. The one we saw back then was roughly the size of a soccer ball, but we figured we'd start with something a bit more modest at one inch cubed.

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The ReplicatorG software is reasonably user-friendly. While not always immediately apparent how, you can easily make alterations to the object, including alternating nozzles to switch up its color for dual extruders. You can also export the project to an SD card to stick into the Replicator or, if you're already tethered, you can start printing directly from the software. Of course, if you're an experienced 3D modeler, you've got a lot more leeway -- in fact, you can, as promised, print pretty much anything your heart desires (within the material and spatial limits, naturally). The rest of us, however, are mostly beholden to the creativity of others. Thankfully, the community has been really hard at work designing some truly amazing stuff on that end.

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The Companion Cube printed without a hitch in under 20 minutes, so we continued our pop culture bent, printing out an MST3K silhouette for the corner of a computer screen and a 3D statue of Mario flashing the "V" for victory. The larger the object, the more likely you are to run into an error. The Italian plumber, for example, started off perfectly, but began to degrade a bit as it went along, leading to a frayed bill of his cap and some messed up finger action -- nothing a few more tweaks to the calibration system couldn't help, no doubt. In all, he took about an hour and a half to print, including warm-up time. But it all sort of drives the same point home -- the Replicator is far from a plug-and-play 3D solution. It is, however, a lot closer to that dream than we've seen in the past.

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Between the $2,000 price tag ($1,750 for the single extruder) -- plus around $50 per spool of ABS -- and the calibration / upkeep required to print, it's hard to recommend the Replicator to the casual consumer. And as far as that question of usefulness goes, it all depends on your definition of the term. A large percentage of the products on Thingiverse fall into the "toy" category, though, folks are coming up with novel uses every day. Say, for example, if the knob breaks off on your stove and you can't buy an exact replacement -- just print one up.

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For the most part, however, the Replicator is really about novelty and the mere cool factor of having a product that can print out just about anything you can imagine. By those standards, this thing is downright amazing. All of those office workers who saw the printer in action were positively floored that such a thing can exist -- and there's really no question why. It's a truly awe-inspiring technology that has already begun to transform design industries, and the Replicator takes a big step toward making it a home-based technology. Casual consumers should wait for a future version. For tinkerers and hobbyists, however, it's $2,000 well-spent.

Thingiverse Favorites

Terrence O'Brien contributed to this report.

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