Standing out on the 3D printing desktop

I’m pondering the growing gap between desktop 3D printing technology and professional machines — it's concerning and still seems to be going in the wrong direction. For the last few months I have been increasingly feeling we are starting to reach a saturation point with desktop 3D printers; most are based on the same plastic filament (FDM/FFF) technology of yesteryear or a spattering of SLA based technologies. And, now that almost all desktop machines have heated beds, easier levelling, calibration and stand alone operation, we get (back) to a point where only a few minor differences separate them. For many users the main issues are still speed, quality and print size. There is one more issue that's slowly evolving, and that's the ugly factor. We do still have some really ugly and overtly 'steampunk - mechanical' looking desktop 3D printers today. Personally, I don't have a problem with these naked looking machines, with their uncovered mass of belts, steel bars and fast moving parts that can trap fingers and gather dust. But it's obvious that many people looking to buy a 3D printer now desire a more refined, aesthetically pleasing device.

3D Seed at the Madrid show, ticking a lot of the innovation boxes and clever mechanical design aspects. This printer appeals to me, but for many it looks unfinished and like a prototype waiting for an enclosure to cover all the moving parts.

At both the recent 3D Printshows — in Madrid and Berlin — one thing is starting to stand out, people want good looking, safe and quiet machines, and they do also seem quite prepared to pay for them. Price is not such the barrier it's purported to be. The continued low price points from many new start-up’s and Kickstarter campaigns are artificial and only drive down the market to a point it's not yet ready for. These keep on coming and usually end up in a mess when the supplier realises they didn't count on so many support questions, manufacturing difficulties or fundamental disappointment from users. They have no money from the low cost machine sales and it all crumbles into dust while they desperately try to re-position themselves at a higher 'professional' price point. For me, the amount of effort you still need to put into model designing as well as using and maintaining a 3D printer, indicates that the price point should not yet be under $300, regardless of the dream for mass adoption. While form still follows function, it's clear that some design and style needs to start hitting 3D printers. We still see a vast number of machines looking unclothed and more like small-scale industrial machinery than a design tool you would want to sit on your desk next to your computer. And it's not easy, I get that. Many companies are just trying to get some sales so they can invest into real design and evolution. All that 'free' open-source design effort will only get you so far with a 3D printer offering to the market. Thus, you either step up and evolve things yourself or enter into a me-too race with everyone else feeding from open-source sources or just making the same old design mistakes over and over again. (Ok, rant over)! Laydrop has done a nice job with its i3Berlin, and you can't really make a Prusa i3 look a great deal nicer than this, unless you just put a big cover over it. The cost, however, is quite high in comparison to more generic i3 kits that were also scattered around the show floor. I listened to a number of people debating its 'value' without understanding what they were actually getting. It's true that we can always have different price points and build quality, but we are also suffering from a lack of innovation in the desktop sector. Too many copies and minor upgrades are being shovelled onto the market and people are confused about what to buy, from my assessment of the feedback I got from visitors and their questions on the knowledge bar. Many of the manufacturers are still using 3D printing hype and misunderstanding to initially sell their machines to a confused and unsuspecting audience. One lady told me "they said it would only take an evening to assemble and I would be printing." They had totally neglected to ask her if building up a kit machine, including wiring of component parts was within her capability. Let alone the hours of calibration and setting adjustments to get a 'working' 3D printer. The reality of using and maintaining 3D printers is still coming as a big shock to many people who 'just want to be able to print things'. Having lots more choice of machines that look a little different but are fundamentally similar, is not helping the customer. Glossing over the operation and reality of using a current desktop 3D printer is unforgivable. It's not just the printer hardware either, 3D modelling and the processing software tool-chain is also a big headache for most users — something that I will go into in a future post. I was therefore delighted to turn the corner at the 3D Printshow in Berlin last week and see what can only be described as a 1960's 'Hotrod Fridge' — with a 3D printer inside.

This was Aye Aye labs - from Poland. A new startup with design flair and inspiration from classic Hotrods and American diners of the 50's and 60's.

This is a very solid and well-made machine; I didn't need to ask any technical questions as I could see the level of engineering and care that had gone into the mechanical 3D printer design. The outer cover options and choice of finish just rounded off the product offering to a specific but well targeted sector. I'm sure Aye Aye labs are going to find their market and do very well in the coming months. I think everybody was telling them to show the printers in London and New York, where to be fair, they will find plenty of people who would want these machines in their apartment, design studio or office. Just across from Aye Aye labs was Dynamo 3D. Another 3D printer trying to add some style via custom graphics on the clear body. This printer is also fitted with ARM powered Create it Real electronics. This provides a very fast, smooth and quiet printing platform for Dynamo 3D. I spent quite some time talking to the Create it Real team. They are trying to promote a standard 3D printer platform for the electronics. It's not open-source or available to individual users, they want to target the bigger manufacturers. It's certainly a nice system and they have done a fine job with the integration into the Dynamo 3D printer. It will be interesting to see if any other manufacturer(s) take it up and how it will evolve for the desktop machines. Another machine that caught my eye (on the very last day of the Berlin show) was on the Verbatim stand. This was Mass Portal, and I have to say the print quality was astonishing, it's one of the best outputs I have ever seen on any filament based 3D printer... Of course Verbatim were keen to point out their new material, and the ABS does look super-nice. But I have to give serious credit to Mass Portal for such a well-designed and calibrated 3D printer. It was oh so quiet too. I'm actually salivating now thinking about it. To say I want one is a major understatement — of biblical proportions.

 It looks fantastic too, form, function, and zen master level printing quality, this is FFF heaven right here, don't even wait for version 2.

This was also the first real time I had to check out recent MakerBot Gen 5 printers, and I was really disappointed. The machines look less industrial and quite functional, not a design gem, but not ugly and going somewhat in the right direction of style. The issue I had with the printers was the noise, you can hear all the stepper motor drivers and an awful drone of mind-bending sounds that would literally drive you to distraction if it was anywhere near you while you are trying to work. And this was at a loud trade show; in a home office running for 6-7 hours at a time it's just not acceptable. I later discovered via Rich Cameron (AKA whosawhatsis) that MakerBot simulate a stepper motor driver with a microcontroller and H-bridge arrangement — the results to drive these bi-polar stepper motors were not good and I have no idea how they ever thought that was acceptable to implement in the production design. As an electronics engineer of 25+ years I would have done that to save on cost 15 years ago, but that's just not the case today with fully optimised and integrated stepper motor drivers that quietly and precisely control. Five years ago early desktop 3D printers did make sounds like that, it was charming (for ten minutes) as they sang tunes while they slowly printed, you could even tell the sort of part being printed by the noises, but there is no excuse for all that distressing racket in today's designs — sort it out MakerBot. Not many dual extruder machines were on show, and only BCN3D Technologies seemed brave enough to run it during the show. Confident and impressive performance, we are likely to see good new things from BCN3D this year. And although not a desktop machine, for confidence in your 3D printer, BigRep has to take the crown, many of the prints were 20+ hours during the entire show; I didn't see a single failure or hiccup. We had fresh and new big objects each day. That makes a statement and stands out from the crowd. Let me know what you think. Is the desktop gap getting bigger? Where do you struggle and are you happy with the current level of 3D printer designs and capabilities?

About Richard Horne

Richard Horne is well known in the 3D printing community as RichRap. Rich is a highly passionate advocate of 3D printing for all uses in industry, education and the desktop. Since joining the open-source maker movement and then the RepRap project in 2009, Rich has been blogging, developing and sharing ideas for the greater global interest in 3D printing.