3D Printing & Imaging
Commercial 3D printers will one day undersell the Makerbot. But does it matter?

The MakerBot CupCake is a thing of beauty, an open-source 3D printer whose $750 price undersells the commercial alternatives by a ton. Plus, you get a fanatical group of users who’ll help you debug any problem. Yes, the Dimension uPrint can make tighter models and outputs them quicker, but $20,000 excludes most amateurs. Then there’s the new UP! PP3DP, which costs a mere $1,500 and features a quality that seems on par with the MakerBot — still not a threat. But if 3D printers go mainstream and the price drops to an inkjet price point (say, $99) how can MakerBot compete? Anything made out of electronics can be made more efficiently and cheaply in a sweatshop than a Brooklyn warehouse. At some point, a commercial 3D printer will undersell the MakerBot. What then?

In my previous post about the UP!, MakerBot user Dominic Muren weighed in with this excellent comment:

As one of the big boosters of Makerbot (Full disclosure: I’m the skull guy, and a friend of Bre’s), I’m not conflicted at all about this printer: I think it’s a Hummer H2. Let me ‘splain.

The truck world is divided into two types of truck. The Ford F150 (or similar model), a consumer-sized truck that does a great job of hauling small-job type stuff. They are affordable, serviceable, and relatively unpretentious. But, they have glitches every once in a while, and so a disributed service network (mostly user-performed) takes care of them. They have massive community support for “how to fix it”.

Then, there is the truck that absolutely must perform, for example, during war. This is a Hum-vee. It is ridiculously over-engineered, can drive 800 miles per hour, and you can bolt a howitzer to the roof. It can only be serviced by qualified personnel, and costs a gazillion dollars.

Some time in the early 1990s, some smart marketer thought that there ought the be a third type of truck, with all the bluster of the Hum-vee, but with the mass market appeal if the Ford. This is the Hummer H2. It looks really rad, and actually is bigger, flashier, and cooler in some respects, than the Ford. But it really doesn’t carry that much more, handle that much better, or drive that much more safely. When it breaks, it’s not designed to be servicable by it’s users, which sucks, because while it may not cost a gazillion dollars, it might cost half a bazillion, which is still pretty bad.

Worst of all, in order to get a truck that is only maybe slightly better in some respects, you pay twice as much money for it (which is literally what you’re doing here).

My advice, with the printer, as with the truck: If you can afford a Hum-vee (or in the printer case, a Stratasys, or printing through Shapeways, which uses higher end printers) absolutely do it. You’ll get much better performance, and the howitzer thing is kind of cool (the Stratasys’s howitzer add-on takes the form of a support material which is dissolved in a HOT LYE BATH!!!)

However, if you don’t have the cash, or you want to own a printer on the cheap, I think you get a much better deal when you buy into a product backed up by a community. I’ve used lots of finicky CNC machines over the years, from mills, to laser cutters, to regular inkjet printers. I’ve never had any product with such a supportive, motivated, and excited crew of support staff on call all the time, as the makerbot user group. On top of that, I’ve absolutely never bought a product that actually published upgrades for itself. I don’t see that happening with the UP – especially since the manufacturer has been so adamant about it’s non-open-source lineage.

Long story short, the coolest thing about Open Hardware isn’t that it’s cheap. It’s the fact that opening the source causes a community to form around it. And that community gives resilience, adaptability, and value to a design that isn’t possible (or is really freaking hard and expensive) for companies with a finite number of employees to provide.

For me, I’ll stick with my makerbot, glitchy prints and all :)

What do you think, readers? Do you agree that commercial options will soon surpass the MakerBot in price — and does it matter? Will we see a second revolution in 3D printing where users channel their memories of “Little Brother” and “Makers” and hack these $99 printers for their own end? And will there be a place for an open source company run by hackers and nerds? Leave a comment.

My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal nerdage.net

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